Try Something New in Syria

April 29, 2013

The conflict in Syria has dragged on for 26 months, and the international community has seemingly exhausted its options for non-lethal aid and support to the Syrian opposition.  Now, with new allegations that chemical weapons were likely used by the Assad regime, the United States and others may be inching closer to putting boots on the ground.       

These developments sound alarmingly familiar to past reactions to weapons of mass destruction. Even the White House has admitted that they are heeding the past and proceeding with caution.  So before we proceed down this well-worn path in the middle east, the international community should try something new.     

My colleague Owen Barder points to one such untapped option called preemptive contract sanctions in a recent oped in the Financial Times.  This approach,  first proposed by CGD, would allow international courts to cut off President Assad’s supply of new resources that finance his repressive rule.  Barder explains: 

“The plan is simple. In short, any new contracts with the Assad regime would not be recognised in the courts of any other nations. And anyone doing business with the Assads would find that their contracts would be deemed to be unenforceable against any successor regime in Damascus.

In the immediate future, it would help to turn up the pressure on the government in Damascus. It would probably be sufficient for the US and the EU to make such a declaration, but it would gain greater legitimacy if it were endorsed by the Arab League and the Friends of Syria.”

Preemptive contract sanctions may be the only non-lethal option left that can strengthen the international response. They would signal support for the opposition and protect the Syrian people from having to repay some debt run up by the Assad regime. And they would deter support from countries that remain supportive of the Assad regime.   

The only reason not to try this new approach is fear of something new and untested. Surely, not trying a smart and nonlethal option is much more frightening.  


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.