Washington, DC ~ On Monday, President Obama received Prime Minister Nour Al Maliki In Washington, DC to announce the end of the war in Iraq, which was previously announced by former President Bush back in 2003. A war ends twice, but troop withdrawal happens once–albeit in phases. At the end of this month, the last of American troops will fold the American flag and return home. Nonetheless, as Obama and Prime Minister Nour Al-Maliki share optimism for the future of a post-war, post-authoritarian-bogeyman (Saddam/Osama), and post-sanctions Iraq, Syria sees that Assad authoritarianism happens twice, but revolution happens once–albeit in phases. Will the repeat incidence of international condemnation and economic sanctions in Syria benefit from any lessons learned by its neighbor Iraq? I argue that economic sanctions’ revolutionary success depends on civil disobedience. When it comes to revolution, change comes from within–before and after the Arab Spring.
Economic Sanctions: Weapon of Mass Distraction
Prior to the invasion of Iraq, I had always hoped for the end of the Iraqi sanctions regime. As an undergrad in the University of Chicago, I had argued in my college thesis that the economic sanctions regime were not only effective, but perhaps too effective. Iraqi civilians felt the brunt of Saddam’s inhumane treatment of political dissidents and minorities. They also felt the brunt of a decimated economy–similar to the entire elementary class facing detention because of one misbehaved student who will not admit to throwing the paper airplane: Saddam’s fabricated weapon of mass destruction. Indeed the effects of implementing a blockade in trade and investment regarding Iraq, debilitated society in that at least 500,000 Iraqi children died since they had no access to medical services or suffered from malnutrition. I compiled a horrifying list of other statistics, which I will not enumerate here at this time because it deserves a separate book. The Iraqi sanctions regime, ironically, came to an end with the 2003 invasion to remove Saddam Hussein for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with human rights or the efficacy of economic sanctions.
Flash forward to the example of Syria, where the death toll since March protests has risen to 5,000. In an act of civil disobedience, Syrian shopkeepers closed theirs stores in Homs, region of Idlib along Turkish border, and parts of the Southern Daraa province. Many schools joined the strike by closing in what has been referred to as “Strike for Dignity”. At the same time, essential goods stores and pharmacies remained open. However, threats of violence to shopkeepers and break-ins by Assad loyalists attempted to interrupt the strike. According to an Al-Arabiya interview, “..the Hama governor threatened to seal off the stores in the city and forces threatened to set these stores on fire,” Ali Hassan, spokesman for the Turkish-formed Syrian Revolution Council, an opposition group.
Iraq and Syria differ in some aspects regarding the economic sanctions. Initially, in Iraq’s case, the proponents for implementing sanctions argued that the middle class would respond to the debilitating effects by removing its dictator. The costs of war or military intervention would be avoided. However, the Iraqi sanctions plan backfired. Ultimately, the US conducted a military operation to remove Saddam because the Iraqi opposition had been weakened, either by the sanctions or the decision to migrate.
In contrast, economic sanctions have galvanized some segments of Syria in that they have expanded their civil disobedience to include the strategy that could not take root in Iraq: business protest. Small businessmen shut down stores, but we have not seen the civil disobedience emerge in Damascus, the largest city and center of Syrian trade.
From a top-down approach, the Syrian regime has not learned from its Iraqi neighbor’s experience: Iraq’s authoritarian rule under Saddam Hussein throughout the 80s and 90s presents a variety of lessons learned. Generally:
1) gorging civil society incites violence;
2) international sanctions are actually very effective to a fault;
3) Gulf countries’ leadership remain reticent even when they decide to no longer trade with targeted country; and
4) specifically, economic sanctions rely on the middle class to organize swiftly and implement boycotts because the time horizon of long sanctions period works against their organizing interests while alienating civil society and hurting households.
Certainly, there are many other lessons learned. Economic sanctions require citizens to behave as dissatisfied consumers AND act like highly-organized citizens–like a union boycott.
Overall, the macro-economic picture of Syria looks bleak as any economic sanctions regime has exemplified. Of course Syrian regime leaders say otherwise: Finance Minister Mohammad Al-Jleilati argues that Syria regime expects growth of 1 percent, according to Businessweek magazine. Looking at Iraq, it will take several generations for Syria to rebuild its economy, civil society, and it investor confidence–civil war or not. At the very least, because of the growing civil disobedience, the Syrian people will not have to rebuild its path towards dignity. When it comes to revolution, change come from within, as we had HOPED to see with Iraq, and as we hope to see with Syria.
Note: For a more exhaustive list of statistics regarding the social and human costs of economic sanctions on Iraq, please view the PBS Frontline coverage.