The US imposed sanctions on Wednesday against Syria’s largest commercial bank and mobile phone operator to try to raise pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to end his brutal campaign against protesters.
A US official told Reuters he expected Washington for the first time to explicitly call for Assad to go, perhaps as early as yesterday.
Human rights activists estimate Assad’s brutal crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations over the past five months has left more than 1,600 people dead, putting pressure on the US to do what it can to force Assad out.
In new sanctions, the US Department of the Treasury added the Commercial Bank of Syria, a Syrian state-owned financial institution, and its Lebanon-based subsidiary, Syrian Lebanese Commercial Bank, to a list that targets proliferators of weapons of mass destruction and their supporters.
The Treasury also designated Syriatel, the country’s largest mobile phone operator, under a separate presidential executive order that targets Syrian officials and others responsible for human rights abuses in Syria.
The actions freeze any assets held by the firms in US jurisdiction and generally prohibits US companies and individuals from doing business with them.
Previous US sanctions have targeted the Syrian president and his brother Mahir al-Assad, other top government officials and security forces.
“By exposing Syria’s large commercial bank as an agent for designated Syrian and North Korean proliferators, and by targeting Syria’s largest mobile phone operator for being controlled by one of the regime’s most corrupt insiders, we are taking aim at the financial infrastructure that is helping provide support to Assad and his regime’s illicit activities,” US Undersecretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen said in a statement.
The Treasury said the Commercial Bank of Syria was designated for providing financial services to Syria’s Scientific and Studies and Research Center and North Korea’s Tanchon Commercial Bank, which was listed in 2005 for the support of weapons of mass destruction proliferation.
Syriatel is owned and run by Rami Makhluf, a powerful Syrian business and “regime insider” who was targeted under another US executive order in 2008 for aiding the public corruption of Syrian regime officials and benefiting from that, the treasury department said.
Meanwhile, Syrian forces killed 10 people yesterday, as they stormed another two towns in pursuit of anti-regime protesters, defying Western calls for action after a “chilling” UN Security Council briefing.
The killings occurred soon after columns of tanks entered the town of Qusayr in the province of Homs early yesterday, sending residents fleeing, rights activist there said.
“Residents fled into the fields and all communications have been cut with the town,” one activist told Agence France-Presse in Nicosia, adding that security forces had later killed at least seven residents and wounded 10.
Three other people were shot dead by security forces in the eastern oil hub of Deir Ezzor’s al-Matar neighbourhood and several houses were torched, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.
Another activist confirmed the death toll, but said 16 people had been wounded, adding that the army “has closed entrances to the town,” while security forces were conducting arrests, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Tanks, troop carriers and buses transporting security force members also sped into the town of Saraqeb in the province of Idlib soon after dawn yesterday, the Observatory said.
“Shooting was heard soon afterwards,” it said.