Just hours after unleashing a missile strike on Syria, Steven Mnuchin announced that the US will announce sanctions “in the near future” against the Assad regime.
Joined by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in a briefing at Mar-a-Lago estate, the Treasury Secretary said the U.S. would impose sanctions on Syria “to stop this type of activity," according to a pool report and multiple media reports. It wasn't clear what sanctions are under consideration: last time we checked the local Four Seasons had seen better days, as for the war-ravaged economy we very much doubt it relies on trade with the US, or has substantial cash deposits in US banks, although those regions of Syria still under ISIS control are surely regular beneficiaries of having their banks hooked up to SWIFT.
Mnuchin’s announcement was the latest sign that the Trump administration continues to escalate efforts against the Syrian President one week after Rex Tillerson said Assad's fate would be in the hands of Syria's people.
Ironically, Trump is taking yet another page out of Obama's playbook: this January, as one of Obama's last decisions, the US imposed sanctions on Syria in response to, you guessed it, chemical weapons use in 2014 and 2015. A report last year by the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons accused the Syrian regime of using chlorine gas as a weapon on at least three different occasions in its six-year-old civil war.
As a reminder, Syria's use of chemical weapons was the original "red line" that Obama warned in 2012 would draw the United States into military action against Assad. But when the Syrian dictator used sarin gas against civilians in 2013, Obama backed out, citing a lack of support from either Congress or the U.N. Security Council.
Syria then gave up its chemical weapons in a deal brokered by Russia and agreed to join the international Chemical Weapons Convention. In 2014, John Kerry hailed the achievement as a success.
Back in January, the US targeted a Syrian company, the Organization for Technological Industries, which the Treasury Department said was part of the Syrian government and responsible for deploying surface-to-surface missile and rocket programs and working toward a ballistic missile program. The department also moved to block the assets of 18 people associated with the company, and with related research, intelligence and military organizations.
It would appear that - if indeed Assad has continued to use chemical weapons despite knowing his every move is scrutinized by the US - those particular sanctions failed to work.
Then again, maybe the former UK ambassador to Syria is right:
"There is no proof that the cause of the explosion was what they said it was. But think about the consequences because this is not likely to be the end of it. It doesn't make sense that Assad would do it. Lets not leave our brains outside the door when we examine evidence. It would be totally self-defeating as shown by the results...Assad is not mad."
Indeed, although the one thing that matters is for a majority of the population to be dumb enough to assume he is.