- By Emily TamkinEmily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. She writes for FP’s The Cable, a real-time take on the news in Washington and the wider world. She has been at FP since the fall of 2016, before which she was an associate editor at New America, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. She has a B.A. in Russian literature from Columbia University, an M.Phil. in Russian and East European studies from the University of Oxford, and studied Soviet dissidence in archival centers in Moscow, Tbilisi, and, on a Fulbright, in Bremen — all of which means that at FP, she writes when she can on Russia and Central and Eastern Europe.
First, the United States responded to Syria’s chemical weapons attack in Khan Sheikhoun on April 6 with missiles. Now, it is responding with sanctions.
On Monday, the U.S. Treasury announced one of the largest sanctions actions in history, designating 271 employees of Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC) as responsible for “developing and producing non-conventional weapons and the means to deliver them.” The sanctions will block any property the Syrians might have in the United States, and bars U.S. persons from any dealings with them.
“The United States is sending a strong message,” Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said in a statement. He also spoke at Monday’s White House press briefing, where he did not comment on whether additional sanctions would be placed on Russia, Syria’s protector and benefactor, but did say that sanctions are both important and effective.
“We wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t think it was impactful,” Mnuchin said.
These aren’t the first sanctions placed on Syria, or indeed on the SSRC. President George W. Bush first sanctioned the organization in 2005, accusing it of producing weapons of mass destruction.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t something novel in this action, which more than doubles the number of Syrian individuals and entities sanctioned. That’s a big number — with potentially big consequences.
Katherine Bauer of the Washington Institute, a former Treasury Department official, said the sanctions send a message that the regime of Bashar al Assad is beyond rehabilitation. That’s important, given mixed messages from the Trump administration just days before the attacks, and the administration’s about-face on its level of tolerance for atrocities by the Syrian regime.
Plus, the sanctions are so sweeping that they could be difficult to roll back in the event there actually is some sort of political transfer of power to put paid to the six-year old Syrian civil war. Despite the breadth of the sanctions action, there is not much clarity on who in the SSRC played what role in developing and delivering chemical weapons. If the Assad regime falls, that could make it tricky to precisely apportion blame for the chemical attacks Damascus has carried out in recent years, Bauer said.
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