April 26, 2017 | Policy Brief

Syria Chemical Weapons Sanctions Send Clear Message

April 26, 2017 | Policy Brief

Syria Chemical Weapons Sanctions Send Clear Message

The U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) on Monday designated 271 Syrians in response to Bashar al-Assad’s use of sarin nerve gas in the town of Khan Sheikhoun on April 4. All were employees of Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC), which designs and produces chemical weapons for the Assad regime. Coming on the heels of the April 6 missile strike on a Syrian airfield, this move shows U.S. determination to protect international law and prevent the proliferation of chemical weapons around the world.

Syria signed the Geneva Protocol in 1968, which outlawed the use of chemical weapons in warfare. The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) of 1997 sought to update and expand the Geneva Protocol by banning the possession of chemical weapons in addition to their use. Syria did not sign the CWC at the time.

Then, in 2013, the Assad regime killed over 1,400 people, including more than 400 children, in a sarin gas attack on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta. The attack drew international condemnation and led to the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 2118, which mandated the destruction of all of Syria’s chemical weapons. The international pressure also led Syria to sign the CWC, which the Obama administration touted as a victory and cited as a preferable alternative to a military intervention.

Since then, however, the Assad regime has not complied with the CWC. It has repeatedly dropped chlorine gas on civilian targets from helicopters, prompting the Obama administration to initiate a separate round of sanctions in January 2017. The designation included six senior SSRC officials, and were the first U.S. sanctions targeting Syria’s use of chemical weapons. While the SSRC was first sanctioned by the George W. Bush administration in 2005, Obama’s targeting of the agency’s officials was a tacit admission that the 2013 diplomatic process had failed.

In his press conference on Monday, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin pointed to Syria’s violation of the CWC and UN Security Council Resolution 2118 as the rationale behind the new tranche of sanctions, in addition to the U.S. desire to “hold the Assad regime accountable.” The new sanctions action, he said, “is one of largest” OFAC has ever taken. According to U.S. officials, the designees were chemistry experts chosen in part because they were likely to travel and perhaps even use the U.S. financial system.

The 271 new sanctions more than doubled the size of the Syria sanctions program, which the U.S. first launched in 2004 over Damascus’ support for terrorism and pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.

However, sanctions alone will likely not stop Syria from using chemical weapons. Should the Assad regime continue their use, Washington will have to credibly commit to upholding the CWC through military strikes. Still, sanctions can increase U.S. pressure by making clear that any individual involved in any level of the proliferation or use of chemical weapons is a legitimate target. More important, they show that Washington will not tolerate the use or development of chemical weapons in violation of international law.

Alex Entz is a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Center on Sanctions and Illicit Finance.