U.S. tightens vise on Syria; sanctions dozens, including Assad's wife

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June 17 (UPI) -- The United States has announced sweeping new sanctions against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as the Trump administration initiates a vast campaign of economic and political pressure against the regime for committing brutal atrocities against the Syrian people.

Thirty-nine individuals and entities were designated by the Treasury and the State Department under the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act -- named after a Syrian photographer who published thousands of photos of torture in Assad's prisons -- that went into effect Wednesday.

"The targets of today's sanctions include regime-loyalists, Syrian financiers supporting corrupt reconstruction efforts and individuals actively involved in the ceasefire disruption in northern Syria," the White House said in a statement.

Among those sanctioned include Assad's wife, Asma al-Assad, whom Pompeo called in a statement Wednesday "one of Syria's most notorious war profiteers."

"Many of the dozens of people and companies the U.S. government is sanctioning today have played a key role in obstructing a peaceful political solution to the conflict. Others have aided and financed the Assad regime's atrocities against the Syrian people while enriching themselves and their families," the United States' top diplomat said. "Now, anyone doing business with any of these persons or entities is at risk of sanctions."

The Trump administration has been increasing pressure on the Syrian regime to force it to comply with U.N.-led negotiations to end the nearly decade-long civil war that began when the Assad regime attempted to forcefully quell pro-democracy protests in 2011.

Since then, the war has claimed more than half a million lives and displaced more than 11 million people, or half of its pre-war population, the State Department said.

The conflict has created a human rights crisis, resulting in more than 13 million people requiring some sort of assistance, according to the United Nations. The World Food Programme, which says it feeds 4.5 million in the country, estimated last month that 9.3 million people are considered food insecure, up from 7.9 million six months earlier.

"Bashar al-Assad and his regime squander tens of millions of dollars each month to fund their needless war, destroying homes, schools, shops and public markets," Pompeo said. "Their destructive war has exacerbated the humanitarian crisis, prevented life-saving assistance from reaching those in need and brought misery to the Syrian people."

Many of those designated Wednesday are accused by the Treasury of developing land that was expropriated from Syrians displaced by the regime for construction and tourism projects.

The Treasury said Assad and his supporters, some of whom are foreign investors, are "pouring" resources into building luxury real estate developments in these areas, including one project called Marota City, the largest investment project in the country, as well as the luxury Grand Town Tourist City.

James Jeffrey, the State Department's special representative for Syria Engagement, told reporters that Assad has destroyed much of the country and the United States is not going to "reward" Assad by "pitching in with everybody else and building it back up."

Other countries, such as the United Arab Emirates, have been warned that the United States thinks it is a "bad idea" to be involved with Syria, and that anyone in any country who meets the criteria of these sanctions could become a target.

Many others sanctioned Wednesday are also family members of those the United States deems directly responsible for the atrocities committed in Syria. Jeffrey explained that when "the principal" is sanctioned they often move resources to their kin.

"The way ahead is for the Assad regime to realize it is not going to come out from under this thing -- and from the people around Assad to realize that they're not going to come out from under this -- until they embrace and accept the U.N. path forward," Jeffery said, referring to the U.N. Resolution 2254 plan to establish peace in Syria. "That is the only way forward for them."

Syria has condemned the Caesar Act, stating it is based on "lies and allegations" fabricated by those hostile to Syria.

"The imposition of this law by the U.S. administration is a flagrant violation of the most basic human rights and international humanitarian law, and makes it bear a primary responsibility for the Syrians' suffering in their lives and livelihoods," the Syrian Foreign Ministry said earlier this month in a statement.

The U.N. Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2254 in 2015, a road map for peace in Syria that calls for free and fair elections to be held within 18 months after the Syrian government and opposition agree on a political transition process.

Pompeo said that the sanctions are intended to force the Assad regime into accepting this agreement and warned that more will be coming in the future.

"We anticipate many more sanctions and we will not stop until Assad and his regime stop their needless, brutal war against the Syrian people and the Syrian government agrees to a political solution to the conflict," he said.

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