Sanctions Hurt Syrians, but They Can't Even Keep Bashar al-Assad Off iTunes

The Syrian leader buys country hits while his people starve, another sign that Western sanctions rarely work and often backfire.

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Left, Syrians line up to buy bread in Al Qusayr. Right, Bashar and Asma al-Assad at a 2002 computer show in Damascus / Reuters

Here is a list of some of the American products that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad bought online this year, according to a cache of his personal emails recently acquired by The Guardian:

  • The Steve Jobs biography
  • The Harry Potter movie Deathly Hallows Part II
  • Several Harry Potter-related apps
  • An iPhone game called Real Racing 2
  • A number of songs from iTunes, including Right Said Fred's "Don't Talk Just Kiss," The Cover Girls' "We Can't Go Wrong," Chris Brown's "Look At Me Now," LMFAO's "Sexy and I Know It," and Blake Shelton's country ballad "God Gave Me You," which he emailed to his wife, Asma (who went on some shopping sprees of her own)

In theory, none of these purchases should have been possible. The U.S. government has Syria, the Syrian regime, and Assad personally under severe international sanctions. The sanctions make it illegal for Americans and Americans businesses, including Apple, to do business with Assad. Their intent is to impoverish, isolate, and weaken the Syrian leader, to deter his bad behavior and make him more pliant to American demands to stop slaughtering civilians.

None of it's working. Not only is Assad's crackdown getting worse, not only is the regime as entrnched and well-armed as ever, but Bashar al-Assad is so untouched by the sanctions that he's still able to make easy online purchases from one of the best-known American consumer companies on Earth. (He appears to have circumvented the sanctions by having someone set up a dummy iTunes account for him with a New York address.) Our sanctions can't prevent Assad from killing 100 civilians a day or even from listening to American pop-country, but we did manage to impose a slight inconvenience on his ability to buy Harry Potter apps.

Our sanctions are also very effective at harming Syrian people, the non-Assad majority whom we're trying to help. The Syrian government dismantled the country's social safety net when the sanctions were first implemented last spring, probably with the knowledge that it would need the money to buy more guns and bombs. It also cut back on fuel and food subsidies, making daily life more expensive for regular Syrians. Our sanctions also make it difficult or impossible for Syrians to use credit cards, wire transfers, or other international banking services. They effectively cut off remittances and foreign business, both important ways for Syrians to make ends meet.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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