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This is a joint post with Jenny Ottenhoff. 

During his first overseas trip as the United States’ top diplomat, and in advance of this week’s Friends of Syria meeting in Rome, Secretary of State John Kerry spoke forcefully in response to concerns from the Syrian Opposition Coalition that the United States is not providing sufficient support to the opposition:

“We are determined that the Syrian opposition is not going to be dangling in the wind wondering where the support is or if it’s coming, and we are determined to change the calculation on the ground for President Assad.”

Short of military intervention and its attendant risks, there is no better way to “change the calculation on the ground” and signal support to the opposition than to move forward now with a new and potentially powerful economic tool: Preemptive Contract Sanctions.

As things stand now, the Assad regime continues to sign arms and loans contracts with Russia and other rogue actors and use these resources to violently repress the opposition and Syrian civilians.  In the absence of international arms sanctions, these contracts remain legal.  Indeed, earlier this month, Russia’s state arms trader said that they would continue to honor contracts with the Assad regime, and presumably sign more, in the absence of UN sanctions. Of course, Russia is also the one blocking sanctions against Syria at the UN Security Council.

Under preemptive contract sanctions any new contracts with the Assad regime would be declared illegitimate and could be repudiated by a legitimate successor government.  This could deter new loans and investments from Russia and others.  And even if not, it would tangibly signal to Assad that he has no future in Syria, thereby helping “change the calculation” on the ground.  Preemptive contract sanctions would also help protect the eventual post-Assad successor from having to repay these obligations.

The Syrian Opposition Coalition has been clear about its hope for military and humanitarian support from Western and Arab countries, and the United States and others seem to be moving closer to providing some kind of direct support to the opposition.  Still, preemptive contract sanctions offer one of the only diplomatic options left for the United State and other nations to show concrete support and protection for a future successor government in Syria.  If done in concert with other forms of humanitarian and military aid, it would confirm that we won’t leave the opposition “dangling in the wind” – both now and as a legitimate successor government starts to rebuild the country after Assad’s departure.

As Secretary Kerry meets with members of the Syrian Opposition Coalition in Italy this week, we hope that the draft Declaration Regarding Illegitimate Contracts with the Syrian Government will be among the ideas that is seriously considered.