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This post is joint with Jenny Ottenhoff As the violent crackdown on protesters in Syria intensifies, so does the international search for an effective response that stops short of military intervention. Meeting in Washington last week, U.S. President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron called on their governments and allies to ratchet up pressure on the Bashar al-Assad regime, but they offered no new diplomatic options and stopped short of endorsing mounting calls for military action, leaving many in the international community wondering: what else can be done?
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The CGD proposal to try preemptive contract sanctions is drawing growing attention inside and outside of government. Under this approach, new contracts with the Assad regime, for example, for oil or arms, would be declared illegitimate, so that a legitimate successor government could choose not to honor them. Tim Harford explored the idea in his Undercover Economist column in the Financial Times and Andrew Sullivan picked it up in the Daily Beast, one of the world’s most widely read blogs. CNN published an op-ed by CGD senior fellows Kimberly Elliott and Owen Barder, who are leading this policy initiative, on its Global Public Square. Duncan Green endorsed the idea on From Poverty to Power. Charles Kenny neatly explained the idea in his column in Foreign Policy: “What is particularly attractive about preemptive contract sanctioning in the case of Syria is that, unlike the existing trade sanctions, they work even if many countries refuse to enforce them.” Barder explained the roots of the idea, with reference to his early work in the UK Treasury on the inherited apartheid-era debts of Nelson Mendela’s South Africa, on Owen Abroad. Policymakers in the United States and UK have begun quietly asking for more details about the idea (some of the answers are here). And advocacy groups in both the United States and Europe have contacted us to explore adding this to their calls for action in Syria. Yet, as reports of killings of civilians in Syria continue, demands for military intervention are growing. Three U.S. senators, John McCain, Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham, dubbed the “three amigos” have issued a statement urging the United States and its allies to support opposition groups inside Syria, politically and militarily. A new policy memo from the Saban Center at Brookings released last week lists six options, four of which involve increasing levels of military commitment, ranging from arming the Syrian opposition to “a multilateral, NATO-led effort to oust Assad and rebuild Syria.” Still, the memo rightly notes:
“The diplomatic approach, for example, could bolster all of the other options…Similarly, all the military options would be enhanced if the United States also continued economic pressure on the Assad regime.”
Before the world goes down the path of military intervention in Syria, why not exhaust all the diplomatic options? With luck, preemptive contract sanctions will encourage senior officials or military officers to abandon the regime and cause outsiders considering doing business with the regime to hold back, or at least drive a harder bargain. At a minimum, preemptive sanctions will reinforce existing and future measures and relieve a legitimate successor government from paying debts Assad incurred in oppressing those who challenged his authority. As Elliott says, why not give it a try? Learn more about how preemptive contract sanctions could work in Syria; watch Kim Elliott’s white board talk in which she explains the basics in just four minutes (now available in closed captioning with Arabic subtitles)


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.