The United States has slapped sanctions on two cousins of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad over involvement in an illicit drug trafficking network.
The US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced sanctions against six people on Tuesday, alleging that they produced and exported an amphetamine known as Captagon and used the sales to help fund the Syrian government.
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“Syria has become a global leader in the production of highly addictive Captagon, much of which is trafficked through Lebanon,” OFAC Director Andrea M Gacki said in a statement (PDF).
“With our allies, we will hold accountable those who support Bashar al-Assad’s regime with illicit drug revenue and other financial means that enable the regime’s continued repression of the Syrian people.”
Syrian President Assad's family members and associates enable the Syrian regime to continue its abuses against the Syrian people by funding the regime through trade in illicit drugs. Today, we are designating six individuals for their roles in this trade. https://t.co/HVabTG1V4L
— Secretary Antony Blinken (@SecBlinken) March 28, 2023
The sanctions come as Assad is slowly rebuilding ties with regional leaders after a period of isolation following his government’s brutal repression of an uprising that began in 2011 and expanded into a civil war.
The US government has accused the Syrian government of turning to drug trafficking to bring in revenue and circumvent restrictions on economic trade. Assad’s government has denied such allegations, stating that it is cracking down on the distribution of Captagon.
The two cousins sanctioned, Samer Kamal al-Assad and Wassim Badi al-Assad, were accused in Tuesday’s statement of manufacturing and distributing the drug, as well as providing support for the Syrian military.
Also sanctioned were Khalid Qaddour, a Syrian businessman with connections to Bashar’s brother Maher al-Assad, and Imad Abu Zureik, a former commander of the rebel group the Free Syrian Army. The US Treasury accuses him of now serving as a leader of a militia aligned with Syrian Military Intelligence.
Two Lebanese nationals, Hassan Muhammad Daqqou and Noah Zaitar, were also designated in Tuesday’s announcement. The sanctions freeze any US-based assets held by the individuals and generally bar people in the US from engaging in any business dealings with them.
Zaitar responded to the announcement with a statement saying he was “not surprised” by the sanctions and considers them a “badge of honor”.
Zaitar, facing hundreds of drug charges in Lebanon and sentenced to life in prison in absentia, has a near-celebrity status in the country. He has appeared in TV interviews, and footage of his social life often surfaces on social media.
In 2021, he denied being involved in the Captagon trade, telling the New York Times that his business was hashish. “Even my worst enemy, I won’t provide him with Captagon,” he said.
Tuesday’s sanctions come as the US continues to denounce the Assad government’s “abuses against the Syrian people”. According to the United Nations refugee agency, the violence in Syria has displaced more than 14 million people since 2011, and nearly 7 million remain internally displaced.
About 90 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. In June, the UN estimated that the ongoing conflict has killed more than 1.5 percent of the country’s population, including an estimated 306,887 civilians.
That figure, however, does not include “the many, many more civilians who died due to the loss of access to healthcare, to food, to clean water and other essential human rights”, the UN said.