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US sanctions target Syrian weapons agency staff

The US Treasury has responded to this month’s gas attack in Syria by launching one of its biggest one-off rounds of sanctions, targeting employees of a Syrian agency it accuses of developing non-conventional weapons.

The Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control announced that 271 employees of Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Center were being sanctioned, more than doubling the number of individuals and entities targeted by previous Syria-related orders issued by the US. 

The affected employees either have expertise in chemistry and related disciplines or have worked in support of the state’s chemical weapons programme since 2012, the Treasury said. 

The moves add to the Trump administration’s response to the suspected gas attack on Khan Sheikhoun this month, which killed more than 80 people. They follow the first major military action of Mr Trump’s presidency, in which the president ordered the launch of dozens of Tomahawk missile at the airfield from which the US says the chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun was launched. 

US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said: “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.” 

He added: “The United States is sending a strong message with this action that we will hold the entire Assad regime accountable for these blatant human rights violations in order to deter the spread of these types of barbaric chemical weapons.” 

Hal Eren, a former official at the Treasury’s OFAC who is now in private practice, said that it was unusual to see the US going after “rank and file” employees in this way. 

“The magnitude is unusual — they don’t normally designate employees of an organisation en masse,” he said. “They really want to put the squeeze on them.” 

The sanctions mean any property of the designated individuals that is in the US or under control of a US person must be blocked, and that US persons are prohibited from dealing with them. A separate swath of sanctions was announced by the US in January against 18 senior regime officials and five branches of the Syrian military.

Syria agreed to destroy its chemical weapons in 2013 under a deal that was brokered by Moscow and Washington. While the US has repeatedly accused Syria of violating its agreement to renounce chemical weapons, Bashar Assad’s government has contested responsibility for the April attack.

This month AFP quoted the Syrian president as saying that the allegation of a gas attack was “fabricated” and being used to justify the US missile strike.

Via FT