Two big pieces of news tonight. First, in the past hour, the US has sanctioned Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad for the first time.
He hasn’t been personally targetted until now. Vice-President Farouq Al-Sharaa is also being sanctioned.
The other five officials on the list are: Prime Minister Adel Safar, Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim al-Shaar, Defense Minister Ali Habib Mahmud, Military Intelligence Chief Abdul Fatah Qudsiya, and Mohammed Dib Zaitoun, director of the Political Security Directorate.
Last month, the US tightened the screws by personally sanctioning the president’s brother Maher Al-Assad, who has been widely blamed for the military crackdown.
The US made the odd move of leaving the President off the list back then, despite calls from the US neo-cons and some expat Syrian protest leaders. Obama seemed to want to isolate Syria’s hardliners, while leaving breathing space for Syria’s reformists in their battle with the hawks. But Obama told Bashar the window of opportunity for reform was small. It seems that window has now closed.
What does this mean? Well, it’s all symbolic. It will have little impact. Syria is already sanctioned to the hilt in US embargoes dating back years and Syria and the US have very little bilateral trade.
The big news will be when EU sanctions on Bashar, expected in the next few days, are announced. The EU is one of Syria’s biggest trading partners, and isolation by this neighbouring bloc will be a bitter blow.
But even that will not push the regime closer to the edge. The astonishing thing about the Arab Spring is that the dynamic has been dictated by the Arab Street (no, I’m not ashamed of using that phrase). Governments fall or survive because of what’s happening on the street, not because of the words uttered in Washington or Brussels. True, Obama may have pushed the Egyptian army to turn against Mubarak, but he could only do that because of the momentum in Tahrir Square.
As testament to the complex nature of the Syrian story, I’m getting a huge diversity of messages on Twitter about the sanctions. Anti-government people against the sanctions, pro-govs supporting it. Here’s a taste:
Qifa Nabki: Sanctions on #Syria? I guess that that means Bashar won’t be able to go to the ATM next time he doesn’t come to the US. #bigdeal
MBayaa: Once US and Europe have their hands in something, it is ruined! Don’t let them get involved PLEASE!
Leenn2011: well these sanctions will certainly scare off any investment in the country, the ppl will suffer not those sanctioned for sure
DavidKenner: Can’t imagine sanctioning Assad will have any real effect, but it is a step down the road to White House saying he’s lost legitimacy.
Remroum: US to sanction Syria’s Assad for human rights abuses. US to give medals to human rights abusers serving in Iraq & Afghanistan #Fail
Atoraia: ok now Obama really pisses me off !!! who asked for your help anyhow ?? believe me man the guys on the streets hate you even more #Syria
JustAmira: Assad has been sanctioned. Saddam was hit with sanctions before and all we saw was reports of countless dead Iraqi children #Syria
MayaBeydoun: US started stepping up language against Syria,same way it did with Tunis, Egypt&Libya.Is this the beginning of the end for #Syria’s regime?
iNewsPress: Well done for the Syrian opposition, it seems that Netenyahu convinced Obama to proceed with sanctions against #Syria Bravo! Traitors!
Sate3: Any Syrian or Arab celebrating the just announced new US sanctions on #Syria is an idiot who is totally blind to recent & past MENA events
Arabzy: Looking at it objectively: Obama is doing more harm than good to the beautiful country; #Syria and its wonderful people.
Some news on the Syrian general strike coming within the next hour…