US President Barack Obama yesterday introduced sanctions against Syrian President Bashar Assad and six of his deputies as the regime continued to impose oppressive measures against its own people. The announcement came a day before President Obama is due to make a major policy speech on the recent developments in the Middle East and northern Africa. The sanctions are largely symbolic as Assad has few assets in the US and is unlikely ever to visit the country but come as a reinforcement of pre-existing measure taken against the country.

There are currently three types of sanctions that the U.S. government has imposed against Syria. The most comprehensive sanction, called the Syria Accountability Act (SAA) of 2004, prohibits the export of most goods containing more than 10% of U.S.-manufactured component parts to Syria. A second sanction, resulting from the USA Patriot Act, was levied specifically against the Commercial Bank of Syria in 2006. The third type of sanction contains executive orders from the President that specifically deny certain Syrian citizens and entities access to the U.S. financial system due to their alleged participation in proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, association with Al Qaida, the Taliban or Osama bin Laden or alleged to be responsible for destabilizing activities in Iraq and Lebanon.

What are sanctions and are they efficient?

Since 2001, sanctions have played an increasing role in efforts to manage security problems. They do not exclusively concern states and can be applied to non-state actors and individuals. Interestingly, although the word sanction is internationally used, it does not have an agreed definition and does not appear in the UN charter. It is however generally understood to refer to a part of the law that inflicts penalty for its violation. Their intent is similar to that of a military action as the main purpose is to inflict damage.

United Nations sanctions

In total the United nations has imposed sanctions on more than 16 countries including Afghanistan, Angola, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Haiti, Iraq, Liberia, Libya, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, South Africa, The Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and the socialist republic of Yugoslavia and Zimbabwe. Out of these sanctions, fourteen were imposed after the end of the cold war.

In the 1990's the emergence of sanctions taken against states was particularly important and they were mostly related to cases of cross border conflicts, cases of civil war likely to have spill-over effects that would destabilise the an entire region, cases where internal repression by the government of one country is likely to generate a conflict that would affect the region as a whole and finally cases where governments supported terrorism.

Quite often it is then not the act of repression of the population by a government in itself that generates the need for a sanction to be applied, but rather the possibility of interfering with the domestic life of neighbouring states. Sanctions vary and spread over a wide range of areas. Arms embargos are a good example of measures that have been used prolifically. If it first served to act as an indication that a conflict was expected to be resolved by peaceful means it is now regarded as a way to diminish the target's military capacity, like recently in Libya. Economic sanctions are also used on a regular basis and include a prohibition of buying or selling certain goods. Sanctions might also be financial, like refusing to permit bank deposits in the name of the person or institution targeted, or the freeze of their assets. They can also be diplomatic or even travel related.

The problems with sanctions however is that they have often been violated and in many cases have been partly inefficient. In the case of Rwanda for example, the violation the UN embargo between May 1994 and August 1995 has been established as a fact. Countries like Sierra Leone and Liberia have also violated arms embargos as rebel groups and militias were actively buying and selling new military material that helped fuel the conflicts. In Iraq under Saddam Hussein, the sanctions imposed by the UN were referred to as a full blockade. They first consisted of an embargo on arms sales to Iraq, an embargo on oil purchases from Iraq and a wider embargo restricting economic contacts with the country. However within little time, the non-compliance of the Iraqi government and erosion of the sanctions led to several violations. In December 1999, the UN was constrained to disband the UNSCOM, its special commission in Iraq and replace it with a new body.

EU sanctions

In the case of the EU, sanctions are regarded as part of its common foreign policy. The common commercial market of the EU means that economic sanctions have to be applied by its common institutions as well as by its member states. It has adopted sanctions against the Soviet Union, Argentina, Belarus, China, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Libya, Burma and Zimbabwe.

Most of the cases in which the EU has had to take sanctions outside of the UN framework involve issues of Human rights or democratisation objectives. The EU recently renewed sanctions against President Robert Mugabe and most of his colleagues in the ZANU-PF party in February 2011. The restrictions include visa bans and asset freezes on most ZANU-PF leaders and a number of state companies and have been prolonged to a minimum of a year.

Restrictions against Mugabe's regime were first imposed in 2002 after violence imploded during the presidential elections. Later on, Mugabe's highly controversial land programme also contributed to sanctions being taken by the US and the EU, including the addition of state companies, a few private businesses and some business leaders who were not members of ZANU-PF to the list. To this day, President Mugabe has seen an EU ban being imposed on him, greatly restricting his ability to travel. The sanctions imposed on Zimbabwe have however been heavily criticised especially in Africa and with South Africa and the SADC leading the way, saying they harm the regional group's ability to resolve the political and economic crisis in Zimbabwe. Despite the sanctions, Mugabe is still the head of state and the country's economy is still in a dire state with a gross domestic product that has fallen while inflation has soared.

Sanctions might be a necessary tool to threaten and put pressure on a regime and they are used widely in the international sphere. They are considered to act as a warning by indicating that more hostile if not forceful measures will be applied if the reproached actions or behaviour are not curbed. In most cases however there are problems of compliance which are usually linked to problems of the monitoring of the sanctions. Economic sanctions, which are now widely used can have non-negligible impacts on a country, but as in many cases they lead to the civil society becoming affected by both sanctions coming out of its oppressive regime and sanctions which are primordially directed to a regime that it rejects.