Minister Says Arab Sanctions 'Unlikely to Cripple Syria'

The Arab League's unprecedented move to slap sanctions on member state Syria will further damage the economy but without bringing the country to its knees, officials said on Monday.

"It will be a severe impact on the Syrian economy, that's for sure," Economy and Trade Minister Mohammed Nidal al-Shaar acknowledged, although it was difficult to determine the precise effects.

The Arab League aims to restrict commercial transactions with Syria to strategic commodities and products, he told Agence France Presse.

But "I don't know what strategic commodities means: Syria exports wheat, cotton, fruit and vegetables, meat, and animals to all Arab countries," said Shaar.

According to the country's office of statistics, trade with fellow Arab states accounted for 52.5 percent of Syrian exports and 16.4 percent of its imports in 2009.

Its leading trade partners in the region are Iraq, with a 31-percent share, followed by Lebanon, with more than 12 percent -- both neighbors which said they will not implement the Arab sanctions.

Arab foreign ministers on Sunday agreed on sweeping sanctions to punish President Bashar al-Assad's regime for failing to halt a crackdown on protests that the United Nations says has cost more than 3,500 lives since mid-March.

The measures include an immediate ban on transactions with Syria's government and its central bank, and a freeze on Syrian government assets in Arab countries.

Further measures, including a ban on Syrian officials visiting any Arab country and a suspension of flights, are to be implemented at a date to be fixed at a meeting next week.

Nineteen Arab League members voted for the sanctions, while Iraq abstained and said it would refuse to implement them, and Lebanon "disassociated itself." Syria's own membership has been suspended.

To limit the impact and in anticipation of the sanctions, Syria has withdrawn almost all of its assets from Arab countries, Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said on Monday.

"I reassure you that we have withdrawn 95 or 96 percent of Syrian assets" from Arab countries, Muallem told a news conference. "We must protect the interests of our people."

Shaar, meanwhile, predicted the sanctions would be circumvented. "It will not be applied completely ... Consumers are used to some product, and if they decide to get it, they get it," he said.

A European economic expert based in the Syrian capital agreed that the sanctions, while of symbolic importance as a first for the Arab League, were not foolproof.

"Taking a closer look, there's a big margin of maneuver, and we'll have to wait two weeks to see how the measures are implemented," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The expert asked whether the cut in dealings with Syria's central bank would also cover private Syrian banks which carry out their transactions through the central bank.

"Will the sanctions be strictly implemented or with more flexibility, depending from country to country? And will the Arab Monetary Fund be able to control how the sanctions are being implemented?" he asked.

Syria has already been hit by US and European sanctions, cutting off oil exports to their markets while its output has slumped from 340,000 barrels per day to 120,000 bpd, according to an industry expert.

The European Union has passed seven rounds of sanctions against Syria, placing 74 people on a blacklist, including President Bashar al-Assad, enforcing an arms embargo and banning imports of Syrian crude.

Official figures show that oil accounts for 27.8 percent of state revenues, also hit by a decline in custom duties from a 20-percent fall in exports and imports plunging by 40 percent.

The economy minister said Damascus will have to rely on its own resources.

"On the economic side we have to rely on self-sufficiency. We have to give the private sector all the liberty it needs to finalize its transactions and ... the private sector represents at least 70 percent of GDP," Shaar said.

Source: Agence France Presse

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