Explaining Syria's coping with economic sanctions
: the interaction of international and domestic factors

  • Ferdinand Alec Arslanian

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis (PhD)


This thesis seeks to explain the dynamics that shape the outcome of a sanctions episode and how ruling regimes in the target country endure the impact of economic sanctions. The thesis aims at bridging the gap in the existing literature between international and domestic-level explanations for the outcome of the sanctions episode. For this purpose, the thesis develops a theoretical framework that integrates international factors into a target country-level domestic mechanism framework. The framework examines the interaction of sanctions implementation, the behavior of third countries and the strategic response of domestic social forces and their combined impact on the target’s political economy and, in turn, assesses how the change in the political economy affects the target’s domestic politics and shapes the sanctions’ outcome. This thesis will apply the US/EU episode of economic sanctions on the Syrian Arab Republic (2011 – ongoing) as a plausibility probe to test the validity of the framework.

The thesis argues that the ability of the target country to maintain its system of political economy plays a significant role in explaining its coping with economic sanctions as that allows the ruling regime to maintain its coalition building strategies. This factor is reinforced when the opposition in the target country suffers from structural weakness especially when further weakened by the sanctions episode. Within this context, international factors such as the level and type of sanctions busting from third countries, the level of sanctions enforcement by sender states and the level of compliance by non-state actors in the sender country can either facilitate or constrain target-level actors’ domestic strategic response to the sanctions episode and hence can either contribute towards maintaining or debilitating the target’s political economy.

In the case study examined, the Syrian regime was able to narrowly maintain its post-populist authoritarian system of political economy and thereby narrowly maintain its ruling regime coalition which comprised of different segments of the country’s populist and business classes. Preserving the regime coalition was reinforced by the fragmentation, dysfunctionality and the religious radicalisation of the Syrian opposition. Different international factors played different roles in shaping the outcome of sanctions episode. In the initial period, the failure to re-direct Syria’s embargoed oil surplus towards new exports markets was countered by the ability to retrieve most of its financial reserves and thus preserving the international economic integration required for maintaining its political system. In the latter period of the sanctions episode, new rent sources related to international humanitarian and political rent allowed for the partial maintenance of the system. The Syrian case highlights the new trend in sanctions design where the growing complexity in the sanctions regime, the ‘comprehensivation of targeted sanctions’ and resort to secondary sanctions calls for reconsidering the devastating humanitarian impact of economic sanctions.
Date of Award1 Dec 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of St Andrews
SupervisorRaymond Hinnebusch (Supervisor)


  • Economic sanctions
  • Syrian Arab Republic
  • Syrian conflict
  • Process tracing
  • Post-populist authoritarianism
  • Sanctions busting
  • Counter-sanctions strategy
  • Sanctions implementation

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