August 19, 2011 | The Hill Blog

Energy is the Key in Syria

President Obama has called finally for Syrian strongman Bashar Assad’s departure. He also has issued an executive order that freezes Syrian government assets in the United States' jurisdiction, and prohibits Americans from making new investments in Syria or exporting any services to it. On the energy front, Obama has banned imports of Syrian petroleum products, and prohibited Americans from doing business relating to petroleum products of Syrian origin.

This is a good start but much more can be done. The key is to use the possibility of U.S. extraterritorial action to get our allies onside. A letter sent yesterday to President Obama signed by a long list of national security and sanctions experts, lays out a number of specific recommendations:

* Work with our European allies to tighten the sanctions regime against Syria. Particular attention should be paid to potential multilateral energy sector sanctions as well as the passage of energy sanctions bills recently introduced in the House of Representatives and Senate.

* Encourage Germany, Italy, and France, which are the main buyers of Syrian oil, to terminate their purchases of Syrian crude; forcefully urge energy trading firms from Switzerland, Holland, and elsewhere to stop their sales of refined petroleum products to Syria; and pressure European, Russian, Chinese, and Indian companies to freeze their investments in Syria's energy sector and the transfer of any energy-related technology, goods, and services.

* Sanction any person assisting Syria in the development of energy pipelines as well as insurance firms, shipping companies, financing entities, ports managers, and other persons active in supporting Syria’s energy sector.

* Implement measures against Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps individuals and entities doing business in Syria. Expand sanctions against Syrian persons who are involved in human rights abuses, support for terrorism, and supporting Syria’s proliferation activities. Sanctioning those international companies doing business with these designated Iranian and Syrian individuals and entities.

* Sanction the Syrian Central Bank in order to freeze the Assad regime out of the global financial system and inhibit the ability of the regime to settle oil sales and other financial transactions. It is important to ensure that the Central Bank of Syria does not facilitate trade for any sanctioned Syrian banks, businesses and persons.

* Work with our European allies to follow your lead in sanctioning the Commercial Bank of Syria and the Syrian Lebanese Commercial Bank.

* Sanction international persons involved in the purchase, issuance, financing or the facilitation of Syrian sovereign debt, including energy bonds, which the Assad regime may use to circumvent investment-related sanctions in order to raise capital for its energy sector.

* Engage Syrian opposition figures outside the country and ensure that all available aid and assistance, including secure communications and Internet circumvention technology is being made available to these groups.

* Leverage the International Atomic Energy Agency’s referral of Syria to the United Nations Security Council for its violation of its nonproliferation obligations to press for additional sanctions against Damascus.

* Recall Ambassador Robert Ford from Damascus unless he is clearly charged with aiding the transition to democracy in Syria.

The Syrian energy sector is the lifeblood of the Assad regime, representing between a quarter and a third of its government budget and a key source of its hard currency. The Iranians understand this, and have reportedly promised Assad $5.5 billion in loans and 290,000 barrels of oil each day, further underscoring how concerned Tehran is about his survival. The presence of companies connected with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Syria — like the recently State Department-sanctioned Iranian ports operator Tidewater — also suggest that the IRGC understands the importance of Syrian energy to Assad’s survival.

Syrian energy sanctions – and financial sanctions that make it difficult for the Syrian regime to get paid for the sale of its oil — could thus be useful by both tightening the screws on Assad, and costing Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei resources he needs to withstand western pressure on his battered regime.

Now that President Obama has made it official that Assad has to go, it’s time to start tightening the screws.

Mark Dubowitz is executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a member of the Syria Working Group.

The full article is available here.

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