US slaps sanctions on Syrian businesses

Move targets mobile phone company controlled by cousin of President Assad, cites terror links.

Assad 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Assad 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
The United States announced Thursday it was imposing sanctions on a Syrian mobile phone company and a duty-free shop franchise connected with Syrian President Bashar Assad's family. Under the sanctions, the US assets of Syriatel and Ramak duty-free shops, controlled by Assad's cousin Rami Makhluf, will be frozen and US citizens will be barred from doing business with the outfits. The Bush administration expanded sanctions against Syria this year to target individuals profiting from Syrian government corruption. It later designated Makhluf as a target. Adam Szubin, a Treasury Department official, said that Makhluf has used government contacts "to enrich himself at the expense of the Syrian people." Syria expert Scott Lasensky from the US Institute for Peace said that the sanctions are in keeping with a policy of "ratcheting up the pressure incrementally over time." He said the US has chosen to focus on the regime's senior figures and family members in an effort to target the people in power while not hurting the broader public, as has often been the result of wider sanctions. He explained, "The interest of the administration both to punish and to compel [compliance] with demands we have made on a range of issues, and to hit them where it hurts - the pocketbook." Those issues include Syria's ties with Iran, its alleged nuclear activities and its aid to Hizbullah and Hamas, among other issues. Lasensky argued in a recent report detailing sanctions against Syria for the Council on Foreign Relations that such sanctioning hasn't proved particularly effective in recent years and would be strengthened if tied to stronger diplomatic efforts. The sanctions come at the same time that Israel has opened indirect peace talks with Damascus, a move that the Bush administration has been lukewarm on publicly. On Wednesday the No. 3 State Department official, William Burns, had some rare positive words for the talks, saying they can help isolate Iran. "Syria's active involvement in indirect peace talks with Israel is a reminder to Iran that even its regional partners may have higher priorities than their relationship with Iran," he told the House Foreign Affairs Committee. But at the same time, Lasensky said the sanctions move continues the administration's mixed messages on the negotiations, since the sanctions don't represent an effort to bring the two sides together or build a positive environment. "This kind of a move sends a signal that we're not too interested in the success of these negotiations," he said. The Associated Press contributed to this report.