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Impose 'smart' sanctions on Syria

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The startling revelations of last week's report by Detlev Mehlis on the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri has set the stage for a significant United Nations Security Council debate. In response to the report's naming of five top Syrian political elites, including the brother and brother-in-law of President Bashar al-Assad, and a number of Lebanese intelligence officials as likely culprits, the United States appears poised to ask the Council to impose harsh economic sanctions on Syria.

A number of factors strongly suggests that Council members want to hold the perpetrators accountable for this terrorist act. But a US call for comprehensive and highly punitive sanctions that not-so-subtly aim at regime change in Syria will be counterproductive. This has less to do with whether the US could forge a political consensus for such action, and more with which types of sanctions actually work and which do not.

In the nearly 20 cases of UN sanctions since 1990, comprehensive sanctions have never toppled a leader, but only further impoverished the people of the targeted state.

By the late 1990s, concern with this negative humanitarian impact, most notably in Iraq and Haiti, prompted the Security Council to develop the more finely tuned mechanism of "smart" sanctions. Early indications are that the US and France favor this approach. Such a resolution should be encouraged as it focuses coercion directly on the individuals responsible for the illegal actions.

An effective response to the Mehlis report, then, would be to lock down the personal finances of those named in the report, to restrict their access to banking and commerce, and prohibit their international travel. An advantage of this sanctions policy is that the same actions can be authorized against those who harbor or support the alleged assassins, as well as those who fail to cooperate with the remainder of the investigation. This permits flexible targeting and aims equally at Lebanese and Syrians potentially responsible for the murders. These measures can be reviewed and adjusted when the final Mehlis report comes out in mid-December.

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