The international community needs to revise its deterrence strategies and examine whether economic solutions are the correct way to address political problems, many commentators say. It needs to look for alternative policies to replace the existing sanctions regime when necessary.
In the post-Cold War era, sanctions have been used as a means to prevent wars and armed conflicts through using soft power. By constructing an alternative response to crises that affect international peace and security, sanctions have served as tools to pressure states to abide by international laws and regulations. The idea behind them is to force decision-makers to change their undesirable behaviour through targeted policies against their economies.
In the age of globalisation and the increased links between states economically, socially and politically, states stands to gain through bilateral cooperation or by becoming members of international organisations. Sanctions aim to threaten states by cutting off these benefits either through excluding them from the international community or affecting their reputation and thus others’ security and economic strategies towards them.
However, while sanctions can play an important role in bringing sanctioned countries to the negotiating table and forcing decision-makers to change their behaviour, they also have been proven to be inefficient in deterring violence or changing states’ policies towards each other.
This has been shown once again in the wake of Turkey’s invasion of north-east Syria and the mounting instability in the region. The US has taken the lead in imposing sanctions on high-level Turkish officials implicated in the invasion, despite the fact that criticisms have also been directed against the US for withdrawing its troops from Syria and thus creating a political and military vacuum in the region.
The US troops had previously served as a buffer on the Turkish and Syrian border, and Kurdish-led forces protected by the US had played an important role in defending the country against the Islamic State (IS) group and imprisoning their soldiers.
Turkey’s invasion of north-east Syria was done on the pretext of creating a safe zone on the border that would allow it to isolate the Kurds, seen by the Turkish government as terrorists and insurgents. The US withdrawal of its troops was a clear gesture of abandoning its Kurdish allies that have long defended the region in the fight against IS.
US President Donald Trump then proposed economic sanctions against Turkey and threatened to destroy the Turkish economy. The sanctions included freezing negotiations on a $100 billion trade deal with Turkey, as well as imposing increased tariffs on steel exports and financial transactions bans.
The desired outcome of those sanctions would be to urge Turkey’s adoption of a ceasefire in Syria and a long-term border settlement to avoid future disputes.
A five-day ceasefire was later concluded and presented as a temporary solution for all the parties. In return, the US agreed to lift the sanctions against Turkey. However, Turkey is still determined to proceed with creating the safe zone regardless of the Kurds’ attempts to stop it.
The ceasefire has additionally failed to set a path for what role the US will now play in the region and whether Turkey will be held accountable for its violence in Syria, especially given the increasing number of civilian casualties and the escape of IS soldiers from Kurdish prisons as the price to be paid for Turkey’s political ambitions.
Lifting the sanctions has been interpreted as a validation of the Turkish violence in Syria, turning the north-east region into a war zone between Syrian, Turkish and Kurdish forces and creating fertile ground for IS to restore its terrorist activities in Syria.
The Kurds have also turned to the Syrian government to restore the territories taken by Turkey, despite the disagreements they have had with the government in Damascus.
The sanctions against Turkey have not been the first of their kind in recent years. In 2014, when Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine, visa bans and asset freezes were imposed in the hope of altering Russian behaviour. Despite Russia’s expulsion from the G8 group of countries, causing problems for the Russian economy, Russian President Vladimir Putin was strongly backed by his people and Eastern Ukraine turned into a war zone for Russian insurgents.
The European Union then intervened and accused Russia of holding an illegal referendum to legitimise its attack on Ukraine. The presence of Russian military forces on the Crimean Peninsula and in the port of Sevastopol was clear evidence of intervention in another country’s affairs and undermining its independence in violation of international law, it said.
The economic sanctions were part of the EU’s response, and they escalated from one month to the next as a tool to pressure the Russian authorities to back off from Ukraine. However, the strategy backfired on the EU because it was perceived as a message to Putin that the EU still recognised Russia as a vital European partner and that relations would be restored once Russia started cooperating to solve the Crimean crisis.
In addition, the EU’s strategy of trying to isolate Putin from his surrounding elite by targeting them with sanctions was also inefficient because the Crimea was not evacuated by Russian forces. Instead, the EU strategy heightened pro-Putin propaganda and support in Russia because of the possibility that he could blame any economic problems in Russia on Western interference.
In the same way that the Russians legitimised Putin’s violence in Ukraine and supported him for it, the Trump administration has also now reinforced Erdogan’s actions in Syria through withdrawing the US troops and then lifting the sanctions, even if Trump’s statements indicate otherwise.
In other instances, the international recourse to sanctions has demonstrated its failure in deterring both Iran and North Korea from expanding their nuclear programmes despite the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that outlaws the development of nuclear weapons.
Another failure was during Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, when the United Nations imposed economic sanctions in the form of financial and trade embargos against Iraq that almost destroyed the economy but did not change the policies of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.
The UN Security Council harshened the sanctions to put pressure on the Iraqi government to disarm. The sanctions reached their peak in 1997, along with the humanitarian crisis in Iraq that led to the launch of the UN “oil-for-food” programme that enabled Iraqi citizens to access food and medicines in exchange for oil.
The sanctions persisted until the US and UK’s military intervention in Iraq in 2003. The trade sanctions were lifted, but not the arms embargo. The sanctions legitimised the US and UK’s control over Iraq’s oil revenues. They were lifted in 2010, but financial sanctions remain in place until the present day.
With the lack of enforcement mechanisms for the sanctions regime and the undermining of international law to achieve political ambitions, today’s world order has been facing growing problems. States adopting revisionist ideologies that question the current geopolitical landscape and trying to change borders by force must face policies that can meet such challenges.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.