|On July 17, the European Union (EU) sanctioned 16 members of the Syrian government accused of facilitating chemical weapons attacks. British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson announced that the sanctions send a “clear signal” to the government that its actions have consequences. However, only one month prior, President Emmanuel Macron of France – a key member of the EU – suggested that Bashar al-Assad’s removal is not a precondition in Syria because “no one has showed me a legitimate successor.” His remarks were a departure from the foreign policy objectives of Macron’s predecessor, François Hollande, and other EU member states, sparking concern that the bloc is not unified in its call for Assad’s exit. More importantly, these types of statements undercut the strategic effectiveness of sanctions and make sanctions seem like an end in and of itself instead of one way towards eventually achieving meaningful justice for victims.
The EU is not the only western actor sending mixed messages. In April, the United States sanctioned 271 Syrian government employees accused of facilitating chemical attacks. Responding to the EU sanctions, a US State Department spokesman stated that the combined sanctions of the United States and EU demonstrate “a continuing effort in the international community to hold the Assad regime responsible.” Despite this rhetoric, the Trump administration stated in March that Assad’s possible retention of power is a “political reality that we have to accept,” a sentiment echoed by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in July, only two months after the United States claimed Syria was responsible for a chemical attack in Khan Shaykhun. In doing so, the United States – like France – is implying that sanctions are sufficient punishment for grave violations of international law and once the conflict ends, Assad can continue to legitimately serve as president of Syria.