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.

'This is not the solution," a Damascus furniture designer told the New York Times in December. "This is a way to make us starve to punish the president."

International economic sanctions have been a popular tool of the West since the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the Reagan, H.W. Bush, and Clinton administrations came to see them as a low-cost, low-risk alternative to military action. But a growing body of academic research has found that they are ineffective at pressuring governments to change their ways. "The probable effectiveness of economic sanctions is, generally, negative," Johan Galtung wrote in 1967, and he seems to have been right.

"The record of international sanctions of a non-military kind, even when applied within an organizational framework, suggests that on their own they will not succeed in drastically altering the foreign or domestic policy of the target," Margaret Doxey found in 1987. Makio Miyagawa, writing in 1992, found that sanctions "have only rarely achieved the declared goals." A 1995 study by Abram and Antonia Chayes concluded, "When economic sanctions are used, they tend to be leaky. Results are slow and not particularly conducive to changing behavior."

If sanctions are ineffective at hurting dictators and effective at hurting innocent people, why do the nations of the West keep using them? One reason may be that Western countries are democratic, and democracies are susceptible to public pressure. Americans (the ones who are paying attention, anyway) and American interest groups would like for the U.S. government to do something about Bashar al-Assad's ongoing massacre. The U.S. government seems to believe, whether or rightly or wrongly, that diplomacy isn't enough and that military intervention is unattractive; sanctions are a low-cost way for Washington to appease domestic pressure and to register its disapproval of Assad. Another reason may be that the U.S. is hoping that Russia, Assad's most important patron, will feel pressured to at least drop its active support for Syria. Or perhaps the U.S. and Western European nations are just acting out of rote habit.

The U.S. might not be able to stop Bashar al-Assad from killing his own people. Diplomatic efforts are floundering, military intervention looks risky, and efforts to divide the Syrian regime are going nowhere. Something could always change -- intervention could become more attractive, a key military official could defect, Hillary Clinton might lobby Vladimir Putin to stop selling Syria weapons -- but right now it might just be a hard, painful truth that there's nothing the U.S. can do to stop the massive. But America is the richest, most powerful country in the history of the world; we should at least be able to keep Bashar al-Assad off of iTunes.

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