BEIRUT (AP) – The Biden government announced on Wednesday its first sanctions against Syria, which are directed against prison facilities and officials who operate them, as well as against armed groups that focus on human rights violations.
The sanctions announced by the US Treasury Department are part of Washington’s policy to maintain pressure on the Syrian government of longtime President Bashar Assad. However, as a sign of a new approach, the government also targeted two armed groups and widened the network of people affected by the sanctions. One of the groups was implicated in violating a 2020 ceasefire.
“The United States is taking steps to promote accountability for organizations and individuals who have immortalized the suffering of the Syrian people,” said US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken. “Today’s action makes it clear that the United States will not forget the victims of human rights violations in Syria and will use suitable instruments to filter out those responsible in a targeted and targeted manner, regardless of the perpetrator.”
The sanctions target eight Syrian prisons, most of which are linked to the powerful general and military intelligence agencies and the generals who administer them. This includes one of the most notorious Syria, the Saydnaya military prison, which is located in the city of the same name north of the capital Damascus.
The sanctions follow the passage of the US legislation called the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act last summer. The act is named after a Syrian military photographer who published thousands of photos of thousands of victims of torture in the Assad government prisons.
The US Treasury Department said many of the prisons identified on Wednesday were highlighted in pictures of Caesar. It is not clear how the US sanctions could affect a Syrian prison.
In a landmark 2017 report, Amnesty International said the Syrian authorities killed at least 13,000 people in Saydnaya in the first five years of the civil war. The human rights group described the killings as a “calculated campaign of extrajudicial execution”.
Human rights groups estimate that 130,000 Syrians are still missing or imprisoned. The US and many European governments accuse the Assad government of most of the atrocities of the war.
The previous government had focused most of its sanctions in Syria on businesses, financial institutions and employees of Assad and his family.
Among those sanctioned by the US Treasury Department is an armed opposition group, Ahrar al-Sharqiya, whose fighters are mainly from eastern Syria. Two of the group’s leaders were also sanctioned.
The group was charged with the 2019 murder of Syrian Kurdish politician Hevrin Khalaf. It is believed to have welcomed many militants from the Islamic State Group into its ranks. It has also participated in Turkey-backed operations against Syrian Kurdish groups in northwest Syria.
The US Treasury Department said Ahrar al-Sharqiya had committed numerous crimes against civilians, particularly Syrian Kurds. These include unlawful killings, kidnappings, torture and confiscations of private property, all of which aggravate the suffering of a population that has experienced repeated mass displacement.
The other armed group is affiliated with the Syrian military, Saraya al-Areen. The group is fighting alongside government forces in the northwestern province of Idlib, where the last opposition enclave is located. The U.S. Treasury Department said the group is aiming to violate and obstruct a ceasefire that has been in place since 2020.
“Today’s designations promote accountability for human rights abuses against the Syrian people and deny rogues access to the international financial system,” said Andrea M. Gacki, director of the Office of Foreign Assets Control.
The Syrian government has criticized the US sanctions, blaming them for a worsening economic crisis, and calling them “crimes against humanity”.
Assad has been in power since 2000 and started his fourth term earlier this month. The country is still devastated by the Ten Years’ War and is sliding deeper into a worsening economic crisis.
Lee contributed from Washington.
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