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At the United Nations last week, a representative of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon gave the Security Council what was described as a “chilling and horrifying” briefing on the situation in Syria. The United States is ratcheting up the pressure on the Assad regime where it can and Secretary of State Clinton called on other countries to join it in boycotting Syria’s oil exports, so far unsuccessfully.

Clearly it’s time for a fresh idea that could increase the pressure on Assad, while avoiding the humanitarian consequences of broad sanctions that concern the EU and others: declare that any new loans to the Syrian government, and new contracts with the state-owned oil industry, are illegitimate and need not be honored by a democratic successor government.  Think of this as Deterrence of Illegitimate Resource Transfers (DIRT) Sanctions.

A DIRT Sanction declaration would not likely have large, immediate effects on the Syrian economy, but it would further isolate the regime and signal that the squeeze is only going to get tighter over time.  It would also reduce the burden on whatever government follows the Assad regime.

Update: Prevention of Odious Obligations: A New Tool to Help Stem Violence in Syria

Long-standing, comprehensive U.S. sanctions against Syria over its support for terrorist groups leave the United States with little opportunity for additional unilateral leverage. The European Union, Canada, and a few other countries have adopted limited sanctions—banning bilateral aid, imposing an arms embargo, and imposing travel bans and asset freezes against designated individuals or businesses (a summary is here). Unfortunately, such narrowly targeted sanctions—shaped by  concerns arising from the unintended humanitarian impact of the global, comprehensive sanctions against Iraq—have  been ineffective.

The proposed DIRT Sanction grows out of research and analysis done by a CGD working group last year. The DIRT Sanction is designed to do some or all of the following three things, all of which are highly relevant in the case of Syria:

  • Reduce the resources available to a regime to suppressing its people;
  • Induce the regime to change its behavior; and
  • Spare a future, legitimate government and its people from having to repay an “odious debt” or abide by contracts tainted by corruption.

To achieve these outcomes, the international community, as represented by a multilateral organization or ad hoc coalition or regional grouping, simply declares that any new loans and, where relevant, long-term contracts undertaken by the regime will be deemed illegitimate and thus not be enforceable in the courts of the countries making the declaration.

Would you sign a contract under these conditions? If you did, would you extract a higher price? Exactly.

The increased risk of nonpayment is intended to deter international lenders and investors from doing business with the targeted regime. And assuming that some contracts (say, for oil deliveries or exploration rights) are signed, despite the DIRT Sanction, a democratic successor government would be able to repudiate contracts deemed illegitimate and still retain access to international credit markets.

So how might a DIRT Sanction work in Syria? The working group report set out two criteria for a declaration of illegitimacy:  that the regime is abusing human rights and suppressing its people; and that there is evidence of corruption. Syria clearly meets these tests: the abuses of human rights are terrible and obvious, and Transparency International ranks Syria as one of the most corrupt countries in the world.

Who should make the DIRT Sanction declaration? The United States and European Union would be key from an enforcement perspective. Having the Arab League, which has been harshly critical of Assad’s behavior in recent days, join in declaring business with the Assad regime illegitimate would add political potency.

Would such sanctions really bring pressure on Assad?  Though the working group proposal was originally designed to address the problem of illegitimate debt, in Syria’s case the lever clearly would be investment in the oil industry.  Since 2005, Syria has received nearly five times as much each year in new foreign investment as it has in new loans. Much of that investment is from Europe (Royal Dutch Shell) and China (China National Petroleum Company) and has gone into the petroleum sector, where it is desperately needed to reverse falling production and exports.

Thus, including oil sector contracts in the declaration would be crucial to success.  Note that the proposal aims to discourage only contracts or loans extended after the date of the DIRT Sanction declaration; it would thus have no immediate impact on oil sales or current investments.

According to the Energy Information Administration, Syria sells most of its oil through 12-month contracts.  As these come up for renewal, buyers will need to think carefully about whether the Assad regime will still be in place for another year. Investors who would be committing to Syria for years to come would presumably be even more cautious.

The international community is currently grappling for tools to respond to President Assad’s brutality against his own people. A broad coalition declaring that loans and oil contracts with such a regime would be regarded as illegitimate and not transferable to a democratic successor would further isolate Assad’s regime and signal that Syria’s economy will be under pressure until things change. That could be enough to tip the balance. At a minimum, it would protect Syrians in the future from having to deliver on obligations made by a corrupt dictator engaged in the systematic killing of civilian protesters.


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.