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Syrian isolation marks regime's nadir

From Rime Allaf, Special to CNN
December 2, 2011 -- Updated 1817 GMT (0217 HKT)
Syrians in Turkey write
Syrians in Turkey write "Freedom" with blood during protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on November 18, 2011.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Syrian officials appear shocked by sanctions, despite endless warnings
  • The ban on oil sales will have significant financial repercussions
  • The regime is now isolated politically and economically
  • The sanctions, coupled with state brutality, could lead to unrest

Editor's note: Rime Allaf, a Syrian writer, is an associate fellow at Chatham House in London. She is on Twitter as @rallaf.

(CNN) -- It would be hard to claim surprise at the array of sanctions which were finally imposed on the Syrian regime in the last weeks, following months of seemingly endless warnings from friends and foes alike. Yet, judging by the reaction of various officials in Damascus, the regime does seem stunned by this shock to its system, having been living in denial about the evolving situation it created.

From the apex of its fortunes only a couple of years ago to the most severe isolation modern Syria has ever witnessed, the regime of President Bashar al-Assad regime has single-handedly managed the feat which no other detractor achieved: bringing the entire country, and of course the regime itself, to a dead-end from which it can no longer extricate itself.

While accustomed to U.S. sanctions since 1979, Syria had never been simultaneously cut off from Europe, Turkey and the Arab world, while also facing the most determined popular uprising the Arab world has yet seen. For refusing to stop its mass military campaign of repression throughout the country, which none of the neighbors or friendly nations could continue to ignore while urging for the proverbial promised reforms, the Syrian regime is now faced with a heavy bill it has no way of paying.

Taken separately, the various sets of sanctions could have been manageable, even if the hardships would still be passed on to the population under the usual empty slogans of sovereignty and resistance in the face of a global conspiracy. In response to the first set of EU sanctions, in fact, Foreign Minister Walid Muallem had told a press gathering that Syria would "forget that Europe was on the map" and turn eastward for its business. When the sanctions reached the oil sector, the Syrian regime boasted it would sell its crude to China, India and other "non-aligned" countries. However, with the increasing difficulties of dealing with a Central Bank under sanctions, even countries sympathetic to the Syrian regime have been unwilling to go through so much trouble just to acquire Syrian oil, which, to boot, is mostly a low-grade crude needing special refineries.

With Europe wiped off the map, the 150,000 barrels per day output which used to be exported across the Mediterranean will be difficult to sell, with very significant financial repercussions for the regime - and that was before the Arab League finally decided to tighten the screws.

It is possible that repeated warnings followed by recurring extensions of deadlines convinced the Syrian regime that Arab countries were bluffing, and that the legendary impotence of the Arab League would prevent real pressure from materializing; this could explain al-Assad's bloody intransigence, and his erroneous interpretation that he really still had a carte blanche to kill, literally, the growing popular uprising which was now supplemented by armed resistance from an increasing number of defected soldiers, grouping themselves to form the Free Syrian Army.

When the announcement of sanctions finally fell on November 12, even with additional deadlines allowing the regime to accept a set of conditions (including Arab monitors) which could save it from isolation, al-Assad and his advisers seemed unprepared. Instead of astutely accepting the offer to avoid greater seclusion, they decided to retreat into the usual conspiracy rhetoric while trying to buy time with complaints about protocols: this merely allowed the Arab League to ensure near unanimity in its decision to isolate al-Assad.

All that remained was for Turkey to close the loop, and to carry out its own promise to punish the Syrian regime if it did not desist in what the UN has since described as crimes against humanity. As of this week, the Syrian regime is completely isolated, politically and financially. Even the reluctance of Lebanon and Iraq to apply full sanctions will be unlikely to make a big difference in Syria's fortunes, especially as international pressure continues to mount.

The impact of this isolation cannot be exaggerated. While powerful allies such as Iran and Russia will try, for the time being, to pull their weight as they attempt to save the regime from its own folly, perhaps lending it limited financial support, a solid geographical reality imposes itself, cutting off Syria from most of the rest of the world.

There is no doubt that these measures will also hurt those who imposed them, and this is one of the reasons why they were so long in coming. For Turkey, not only has the zero problem with neighbors policy been shattered, but the Arab world opening it had carefully nurtured will be negatively affected if transport trucks must now take a long diversion through Iraq. This will take time, effort and resources which had not been expected.

The truth is that for all the propaganda spewed by the Syrian regime, few countries in the region want to see Syria completely isolated, if only for their own selfish reasons. Everyone is worried about potential civil strife and its effect on the region, but there is also an economic aspect: while losing trade with Syria might not make a difference to most neighbors, losing the trade route will.

The battered Syrian population will only feel more hardship as it struggles to overcome this unprecedented period in recent history, and the sanctions will affect people, economically, socially and politically. Indeed, even Syrians who do not actively support the revolution will feel the pain of remaining silent while the al-Assad regime entrenches itself with increasing violence, if that were possible.

Decades ago, the regime had been able to count on the population's fear and on its acceptance of the broad argument of resistance in the face of imperialist aggression. Today, however, the imposed agony of sanctions coupled with the extreme brutality of the regime will probably push people to make a stand before it's too late. The sooner this happens, the less likely the possibility of civil strife or of intervention in Syria.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Rime Allaf

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