Three ranked Syrian military officials and their immediate families are barred from entering the U.S. because of their involvement in chemical warfare. According to the U.S. Department of State press release, Brigadier General Adnan Aboud Hilweh, Major General Ghassan Ahmed Ghannam, and Major General Jawdat Saleebi Mawas helped orchestrate and execute the military operation that killed 1,400 people outside Damascus in the suburb of Ghouta with sarin gas.
Following their neighbors during the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, protests erupted in Syria and eventually devolved into civil war. According to Deutsche Welle, by August 2013 rebel groups held territory in Ghouta, and the Syrian regime’s armed forces could not reclaim it so on August 21, 2013, four rockets desecrated the suburb. Journalist Birgitta Schuelke asserts that an initial investigation conducted by the UN confirmed the rockets were carrying sarin gas but the UN was not allowed to name the perpetrator; however, international pressure helped get the Syrian regime to join the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and destroy its stockpile. Despite the world’s efforts, chemical warfare continued to occur during conflict and no one was yet brought to justice for the pain, suffering, and loss of life inflicted.
In the press release from October 24, 2022, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken “remembers and honors the victims and survivors” of the chemical attacks determined to have occurred during the civil war and “calls on the Assad regime” to hold itself to the standards laid out by the OPCW. Blinken also reasserted the U.S. will “continue to support Syrian-led and international efforts to ensure there are consequences for the ongoing human rights violations and abuses” and to “stand with and support the Syrian people in their demands for human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
The State Department’s decision and Blinken’s statement coincide with Section 7031 of the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act which states that if the Secretary of State “has credible information that a foreign official has been involved… with significant corruption and/or a gross violation of human rights” the U.S. can prevent them from entering its borders. Sanctions, like visa restrictions, are a nonviolent and safe way to hold international criminals accountable for their actions but are often criticized for several reasons. In an article from Just Security, Benjamin Press, a research assistant in the Democracy, Conflict and Governance Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, celebrates these sanctions for their ability to “name and shame” individuals who have committed crimes.
But he is concerned that “fragmented legal authorities have hampered the use of public visa bans” as there is no consistent ruling for publicizing cases that don’t perfectly fit into significant human rights abuses or corruption. Although there are cases where a private ban is preferable, Press argues that creating a more precise framework for publicizing those with U.S. visa restrictions and denials can help the U.S. “call attention to a range of anti-democratic conduct, impose costs on those responsible, and encourage other governments to follow suit”. A bill, H.R. 5209 – Counter-Kleptocracy Act, was introduced in 2021 that would allow the Secretary of State to determine on a case-by-case basis whether to publicly share visa restrictions and denials or not.
Although nonviolent and diplomatic tools, including visa restrictions, have been criticized for their ineffectiveness, like having legal gaps that deteriorate their strength, the three men named in the recent press release have been publicly “named and shamed” for crimes against humanity. Since this means the Secretary of State has credible reason to believe they are responsible for the 2013 sarin gas attack in Ghouta, this suggests that there is enough evidence to bring official charges against these men in a formal court. According to The New York Times, German courts, which have a reputation for prosecuting those who have committed war crimes, have been working hard to gather evidence and bring more cases to trial to hold Syrian war criminals accountable. Hopefully, the world continues to see countries publicly working together to bring attention to and prosecute human rights abusers and the U.S. can work with Germany its other allies to fight for justice.