As I write, European Union leaders are hesitating over whether to follow the United States in imposing a ban on purchasing Syrian crude oil among the 27 member states. But last week's announcement by President Obama was the right thing to do and Europe should follow.
Not just as a rare chance for Europe to become the senior partner in Middle Eastern policy, since far more Syrian oil is sold into Europe than to the States - over 90%. But because an export sales ban, in particular, has a chance of targeting the Assad regime's sources of financing with limited spill over into the population at large.
It is true that sanctions now have a very mixed reputation as a policy tool. Hufbauer's classic work, reviewing 200 cases of sanctions regimes, estimates they have "worked" only about a third of the time - less when the goal has been sweeping, such as regime change. Sometimes sanctions have been seen to be ineffective - as in the case of Western divestment from Sudan, which simply led to the replacement of European and North American oil companies by Asian ones, China's CNPC and India's ONGC among others. In other cases they have been indiscriminate - such as the UN sanctions on Iraq from 1991 to 2003 which the United Nations estimated at one stage could have caused the deaths of half a million Iraqi children from lack of access to drugs.
But Syria 2011 is not Iraq 1991. There are at least six reasons why oil sanctions on Syria would be effective:
- It is the regime which depends on oil revenues, which account for 15% of GDP, not the economy as a whole as in Iraq, where oil constitutes 60% of GDP.
- Syrians who support the protest movement also overwhelmingly support economic sanctions which target the regime, even though they are keenly aware that there could be some spillover into the population at large.
- We know that because we are in constant contact with them, the days of total isolation, which Saddam's Iraq knew, are over. That also means we will be able to monitor constantly the impact of sanctions to see if they are having the desired effect. Sanctions can be smarter in an age of social networking and digital activism.
- While such sanctions move beyond where other important regional players such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia are, they are only one step beyond, not ten. This is not liberal interventionism gone wild and imposed by force. It is leadership with a careful eye to where regional consensus is.
- An export sales ban stands a strong chance of working because of the market specificities of Syrian crude. The main export grade, Sowedie, is extremely heavy and sour, meaning it will be hard for the regime to sell it into Asian markets, say the Indians or Chinese, because their refineries are not adapted. They would need to invest heavily to extend refineries, costing time and money which they would pass on to the Syrians, as well as increased shipping costs and the general discount of a fire-sale.
- The imminent re-entry of 1.5 million barrels of Libyan Light to oil markets, following the fall of Gaddafi, deals with any outstanding claim that the world needs Syrian oil. Although it will take the Libyans perhaps 12 months to reach full capacity again, they are likely to surpass Syria's 150,000 barrels a day within a fortnight.
Syria's protesters are still overwhelmingly peaceful, after six months of bloody repression which has cost thousands of lives, mass imprisonment and torture, and a climate of fear and lies spread by a brutal regime. Every week, another 100 people die there for expressing their desire to live in a free society similar to the ones we enjoy. For decades, we in the West have been bemoaning the lack of democracy in the Middle East. It is time now to stand up for our values and support these brave men and women.
Johnny West is the founder of OpenOil, a consultancy which advises the United Nations on the oil industry in the Middle East. His book "Karama! Travels Through the Arab Spring", has just been published in the UK by Quercus.