WASHINGTON, D.C.– Less than two weeks after the Trump administration’s controversial missile strike on a Syrian government airbase, the U.S. Treasury has moved to place sanctions on 271 Syrians who the U.S. alleges are involved in the research and production of chemical weapons.
All of the newly-sanctioned Syrians are employees of Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC). The sanctions will freeze the individuals’ U.S. assets and prohibit U.S. businesses, and U.S. citizens in general, from dealing with them.
As one of the largest sanction actions taken in U.S. history, the move marks another retaliatory measure for the Syrian government’s alleged role in a gas attack that took place earlier this month in Syria’s al-Nusra-controlled Idlib Province. The Syrian government’s role in the attack has yet to be confirmed as no investigation of the attack has taken place and some chemical weapons experts have asserted that the attack may have been staged.
National security advisor and MIT professor Theodore Postol, who has won several awards for debunking claims about missile defense systems and has worked as a scientific adviser to the U.S. Chief of Naval Operations, issued a three-part series on the Idlib attack. He concluded that the Trump administration’s allegations do not provide any “concrete” evidence that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was responsible, adding it was more likely that the attack was perpetrated by players on the ground.
Despite having no evidence, the Trump administration has specifically blamed the now-sanctioned SSRC members for developing the sarin gas allegedly used in the attack.
“These sweeping sanctions target the scientific support center for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s horrific chemical weapons attack on innocent civilian men, women and children,” said U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin in a press release.
“We take Syria’s disregard for innocent human life very seriously, and will relentlessly pursue and shut down the financial networks of all individuals involved with the production of chemical weapons used to commit these atrocities,” Mnuchin added.
This is not the first time the SSRC has been targeted by sanctions. Just weeks before Trump’s inauguration earlier this year, six Syrian officials connected to the SSRC were sanctioned by the Obama administration.
While U.S. allies like the United Kingdom have expressed strong support for the new sanctions, Moscow has accused the U.S. government of taking retaliatory action, such as the new sanctions, to distract the international community from demanding a complete investigation of the Idlib attack.
“Once again, we see how the sanctions are being used not as an instrument to achieve a real goal, but as a demonstration of a theatrical decisiveness, an effort to substitute or cancel the investigation by the very fact of punishment for an ostensible evidence of guilt,” said Konstantin Kosachev, chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the upper house of the Russian parliament.
Sanctions serve as substitute for significant action
As Kosachev noted, U.S. sanctions have frequently been used against governments for dubious purposes, often greatly affecting ordinary citizens as opposed to the governments they are ostensibly meant to harm. One of the most well-known cases of U.S. sanctions gone awry are those imposed against Iraq in the 1990s, an example that shares many parallels with the situation in Syria.
While nearly a decade of sanctions were often justified as necessary to pressure Saddam Hussein into abandoning Iraq’s (non-existent) weapons of mass destruction and recognize Kuwaiti sovereignty, U.S. officials also stated that the sanctions would not be lifted until Saddam Hussein was removed from power, suggesting that regime change was the real motivation.
However, those who ended up suffering under sanctions were Iraqi civilians. The sanctions dramatically decreased the standard of living in Iraq, as well as triggered the collapse of key infrastructure and availability of public services. UNICEF also noted that poverty and food insecurity jumped significantly as a result.
But more troubling than the economic devastation and impoverishment the sanctions caused was their impact on the health of Iraqi civilians. The sanctions are estimated to have killed up to 1 million people through mass starvation and disease, with nearly half of them believed to have been children, according to the United Nations.
Defense Intelligence Agency documents later revealed that the U.S. government had intentionally used sanctions to degrade the country’s water supply following the Gulf War and that they were aware that many Iraqi civilians would die or become ill as a result. The documents, uncovered by journalist Thomas Nagy, stated that the embargo of chlorine via sanctions would prevent Iraq from providing clean water to a majority of its citizens.
Similar to U.S. sanctions against Iraq in the 1990s, current sanctions against Syria are unlikely to be lifted until Assad is removed from power – a long-standing geopolitical goal of the United States, as was the ouster of Saddam Hussein. Like Hussein, who drew U.S. ire for heading an oil state that refused to sell out its oil and agriculture industries to U.S. corporations, Assad rejected a lucrative gas pipeline deal that would benefit U.S. regional allies, a move that Syrian officials and others have blamed for the country’s descent into conflict.
While these latest sanctions, like those of years past, are purportedly intended to deter the use of chemical weapons, it is just as likely that they are being used as a political tool to further the U.S.’ goal of ultimately removing Assad from power.
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