In March of 2011, Syria underwent a civil war. Following this turbulent event, there was considerable oppression of the Syrian citizens by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Protests were forcibly put down by the military, and the people were suffering under this rule. To end this violence, many foreign powers put in place economic sanctions on the country. Based on the sanctions put into place by the Arab league, and several other international bodies, foreign intervention into Syrian affairs may not have promoted a more democratic rule, but allowed for evasion and persistence of the current state of affairs by the current regime, as well as negatively impacted the Syrian people.
Foreign aid may be defined as any aid that one country gives to another, through private donations, national governments, or even intergovernmental organizations. There are two lenses through which one can view the effects of foreign aid, either as being beneficial to democratization, or endorsing its decadence. What ends up happening in many cases is that the countries afforded aid become dependent on it, and their states are unable to function without it. The sanctions put forth in Syria in 2011 illustrate that foreign aid and foreign intervention have comparable effects.
The aim of implementing these sanctions was to force the Syrian government into a peace plan set up by the Arab League, which included transitioning to democracy. These measures were decided by the League, but were supported by Turkey and the United States. The United Nations was also called upon for its participation in this affair. Additionally, the European Union agreed to the imposed abstinence from certain interactions with Syria. This action included economic restrictions by these other countries, such as refusing imports of Syrian origin, the withdrawal of resources and aid, as well as foreign exports, rather than any militaristic action, as was encouraged by the League just previously in Libya.
When discussing the concept of foreign aid, many scholars approach it from a pessimistic perspective, which is appropriate to this situation. Though foreign countries may see it as their prerogative to help nations in which they see people suffering, this “aid” they provide may end up doing nothing more than acting as a means for the current government to remain in place by keeping them from falling into economic or social disrepair. This is significant in that foreign aid allows rulers to be less dependent on citizens for revenue, and regimes are then sustainable only based on their donors. Under this model, citizens would continue to suffer, because the regime’s current behavior, rather than being expunged, would remain, and the economic effects of the sanctions would be felt by the people.
This intervention by the Arab League marked the progression of this conflict from a domestic struggle to a matter of international importance. This brings up the question of when it is justifiable for foreign countries to interfere in matters within a country. The general consensus expressed by this event is that the criteria for such meddling lies in the suffering of civilians. In many prior situations, foreign powers solved issues of this type with armed forces, but to spare the people further violence, the Arab League decided to forego this extreme measure. Ironically, the practice of international intervention itself caused the people even more anguish.
There are multiple complications to consider regarding these economic sanctions. One potential issue was relayed by a citizen, who told a New York Times reporter, ‘“those who couldn’t afford buying bread, now can’t afford even smelling bread,”’ demonstrating the extent to which this international interference would adversely affect the average citizen economically, rather than push Assad’s regime out from under. It would simply hurt the lower and middle classes. Another issue with this prospective resolution was that two of the neighboring countries, Lebanon and Iraq, refused to have a hand in this foreign intervention. In addition, even if all of these countries participated, it would have been likely that Iran and Russia would have contributed to Syria in terms of compensating for their lost economic revenue, thus keeping the current regime intact. Thus, implementing trade restrictions by means of international intervention was bound to lead to foreign aid, allowing for the current leadership to continue operating in the same corrosive fashion.
Nabil el-Araby, the Arab league’s secretary general relayed that the sanctions “demonstrate the need for an Arab solution rather than any foreign intervention,” implying that the sanctions were not an example of foreign interference. The Quatari minister, Sheik Hamad, similarly stated that “Muslim nations had a religious obligation to stop such deaths, and that he hoped sanctions could do the job without the need for foreign intervention.” The issue with such statements is that that they equate foreign intervention to Western involvement, where the two are distinct. Just because the injunctions in Syria were not set in place by the United States or the European Union, does not mean that they were not instances of foreign intrusion into the country’s domestic affairs. While it may be true that the Arab League may have had more well-intentioned goals behind the sanctions than any put in place by the West might have, this does not allay the effects of such economic restrictions, no matter what international institution or power put them into place.
Through the frame of reference manifested in the execution of the 2011 Syrian sanctions, one can conceive of the parallels between foreign aid and foreign intervention. In this specific case, it becomes clear that it is possible for the former to lead to the latter when foreign powers disagree on what action to take, or whether any action should be taken at all. The result of this is that the end of the original measures, such as democratization or the collapse of a current regime, may never be achieved. This renders the implementation of said actions an extravagance that may have cost citizens in the lower and middle classes what little revenue they had before any interference occurred, leaving the people worse off in the end.
“Arab League approves Syria sanctions.” Al Jazeera, November 27, 2011. Accessed March 10, 2018. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2011/11/20111127143750187116.html.
MacFARQUHAR, NEIL, and NADA BAKRI. “Isolating Syria, Arab League Imposes Broad Sanctions.” New York Times, November 27, 2011. Accessed March 10, 2018. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/28/world/middleeast/arab-league-prepares-to-vote-on-syrian-sanctions.html.
Photo by Baraa Al-Halabi, Getty Images. http://time.com/48294/syria-economy-30-years-unrwa/