Trump sanctions Syrian president’s wife, others over human rights atrocities

The Trump administration on Wednesday imposed sanctions on Syria’s President Bashar Assad, his wife Asma Assad and dozens of individuals for mass atrocities against civilians that have taken place over the course of the nine-year civil war in that country.

The sanctions are another grim development in one of the most devastating conflicts in modern history, with the United Nations envoy for Syria recently detailing that the scope of the suffering “defies comprehension and belief.”

The sanctions are authorized under the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, signed into law as part of the National Defense Authorization Act by President Trump in December.

The Caesar Act is named for the alias of a Syrian police photographer who defected from the Assad government and smuggled out photographic evidence of mass killings, torture and brutality carried out against thousands of Syrian detainees.

“As of today, the sanctions provisions of the Caesar Act are fully in effect,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement Wednesday. “Anyone doing business with the Assad regime, no matter where in the world they are, is potentially exposed to travel restrictions and financial sanctions.”

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnunchin said in a statement that the “United States will not stand by while the Assad regime displaces civilians to benefit regime-friendly elites. The Treasury Department will continue to use its tools and authorities to target the Assad regime and its supporters, as they seek to profit off the suffering of the Syrian people.”

Caesar presented this photographic evidence to House lawmakers in January 2014, prompting the drafting of the Caesar Act by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.). The bill drew wide bipartisan support. 

Engel on Wednesday called the sanctions a “welcome but overdue step.”

“I began work on this law years ago and have watched in horror as the carnage in Syria has raged unchecked,” the chairman said. “It shouldn’t have taken so long to get this bill enacted and it shouldn’t have taken Congress to push the administration to take a positive step to address the crisis.”

The U.S. sanctions, which follow steps taken by the European Union in January 2019 and February of this year, will put visa and financial restrictions on Assad, his wife and at least 37 other individuals and entities.

Pompeo singled out the designation against Syria’s first lady as moving to disrupt a business of “war profiteers.”

“I will make special note of the designation for the first time of Asma al-Assad, the wife of Bashar al-Assad, who with the support of her husband and members of her Akhras family has become one of Syria’s most notorious war profiteers,” the secretary said.

“Now anyone doing business with any of these persons or entities is at risk of sanctions.”

The sanctions are also targeting individual companies involved in real estate development, saying the Assad government has expropriated land from tens of thousands of displaced civilians as part of plans to build luxury housing developments. The Treasury Department said the sanctions will punish entities meant to profit from “displacement and reconstruction.”

The atrocities of the nine-year civil war include hundreds of thousands dead amid tortuous chemical weapons attacks, indiscriminate bombing, arrests and forced disappearances. The medical and education system is devastated in the country, millions of children suffer trauma from constant fighting and fleeing, with more than 10 million people either refugees or internally displaced, according to U.N. figures.

The Syrian civil war evolved from a 2011 uprising by disparate groups of aggrieved citizens who were met with a brutal crackdown by Assad’s military forces. The conflict was exploited by jihadist groups and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The Assad government has managed to wrestle control over two-thirds of the country, with the support of Russia and Iran, while the northeast territory is largely under Kurdish control.

The U.S. involvement in Syria has largely focused on supporting the Kurds rooting out ISIS in that territory. Other areas along Syria’s border with Turkey are occupied by Turkish forces.

Assad’s control of the country comes with an economy in ruin, and the U.S. sanctions are meant to financially squeeze the leader and pressure Assad to implement a political solution outlined in the United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2254, calling for U.N.-mediated talks between Assad and opposition forces.

Pompeo said the U.S. will add more sanctions “in the coming weeks and months to target individuals and businesses that support the Assad regime and obstruct a peaceful, political resolution of the conflict as called for by UNSCR 2254.”

He added, “it is time for Assad’s needless, brutal war to end.”

Tags Asma Assad Bashar Assad Donald Trump Eliot Engel Mike Pompeo sanctions Syria

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