Trump Hits Syria’s Fuel Network With Sanctions As Assad Prepares Idlib Assault

REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

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Will Racke Immigration and Foreign Policy Reporter
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The Trump administration announced sanctions Thursday against several entities that provide fuel procurement services to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, including one businessman who brokers trade deals between the government and the Islamic State.

The four individuals and five companies were blacklisted because they are known to have supplied Assad with oil and weapons in violation of international sanctions, according to the Department of Treasury.

Among the newly sanctioned individuals is Muhammad al-Qatirji, an import-export specialist with close ties to the Syrian government. U.S. officials say al-Qatirji’s eponymous company serves as the Assad regime’s principal intermediary with ISIS and has arranged shipments of weapons, oil and other commodities between Damascus and the terror group.

Also added to the Treasury Department’s specially designated nationals (SDN) list were Syrian nationals Yasir Abas and Adnan Al-Ali and Lebanese national Fadi Nasser. The men are key players in Syria’s fuel procurement network, which is used to evade sanctions through clandestine imports of crude oil and petroleum products to Syrian ports.

The sanctioned companies are the Syria-based Al-Qatirji Company; Abar Petroleum Service SAL and Nasco Polymers and Chemicals; and United Arab Emirates-based International Pipeline Construction FZE and Sonex Investments Ltd.

“The United States will continue to target those who facilitate transactions with the murderous Assad regime and support ISIS,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement.

The sanctions come as Syrian government forces, backed by allies Russia and Iran, are preparing for a major battle in Idlib province, the last remaining rebel stronghold in Syria. The province is home to about 3 million people, more than half of whom were already displaced by fighting in other parts of the country.

At least 70,000 rebel fighters — many of them hard-core Islamic militants — are also concentrated in Idlib, meaning an assault by the Assad regime could easily turn into the bloodiest battle of the seven-year civil war. International observers fear the fighting will cause a humanitarian catastrophe as desperate civilians flood into neighboring countries.

President Donald Trump warned Assad against launching a large-scale attack on Idlib, but Washington’s ability to shape events on the ground in Syria is limited. The 2,000 troops U.S. troops deployed to Syria are confined to the eastern half of the country, and using them to intervene in Idlib would risk a direct military confrontation with both Russia and Iran. (RELATED: Russia Resumes Airstrikes In Syria After Trump’s Warning Not To ‘Recklessly Attack’ Rebel Province)

Even so, the Trump administration hopes to weaken the Assad regime through sanctions.

“Today’s action shows that the United States will continue to take concrete and forceful action to cut off material support to the Assad regime and its supporters,” the Department of State said Thursday in a statement. “The United States will continue to use all available mechanisms to isolate the Assad regime, a government which has systematically arrested, tortured, and murdered tens of thousands of Syrian civilians.”

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