The Trump administration has imposed a new round of sanctions on five people and five companies in Syria, the U.S. Treasury Department announced Tuesday. In a statement, the department cited Syria’s “relentless attacks on civilians” as grounds for the sanctions. A day earlier, the Trump administration accused Syria’s Assad regime of cremating the remains of thousands of hanged prisoners in “an effort to cover up the extent of mass murder.”
According to Stuart Jones, the acting assistant secretary for Near Eastern Affairs at the U.S. State Department, recently declassified reports and photos show a crematorium at the Saydnaya military prison near the Syrian capital of Damascus. While Amnesty International previously reported that between 5,000 and 13,000 people were hanged at the prison from 2011 to 2015, evidence of a crematorium is new. On Monday, the Trump administration referred to the incineration of prisoners as a “new level of depravity” for Syria.
Syria denied the accusations of mass killings on Tuesday, calling them “lies” and “fabrications.” Syria’s Foreign Ministry said the U.S. has a track record of falsifying claims in order to justify the country’s military aggression. The latest accusations were nothing more than a “new Hollywood plot,” they said. On Tuesday, Stephane Dujarric, a spokesperson for the United Nations, said the UN could not verify the United States’s allegations because Damascus had “systematically rejected” their requests to visit the city’s prisons and detention centers. Still, he noted that “various UN entities have regularly documented and reported on human rights violations in Syria, including torture in the context of detention.”
Tuesday’s sanctions signify a mounting effort on behalf of the Trump administration to crack down on Syria’s human rights abuses. Among those sanctioned are two brothers, Ihab and Iyad Makhlouf, both cousins of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. According to Reuters, the men have been blacklisted for helping a third brother, Rami Makhlouf, evade U.S. sanctions placed on him in 2008. At the time, Rami was accused of aiding corrupt officials in the Syrian government. Tuesday’s sanctions also targeted the Makhlouf family’s Al-Bustan Charity, along with their cousin, Muhammad Abbas, who was accused of doing Rami Makhlouf’s financial bidding. The sanctions have frozen any U.S. assets the men or their businesses might have and prohibit Americans or U.S. entities from doing business with them.
Compared to last month’s sanctions from the U.S., this latest round appears relatively tame. On April 24, the Treasury Department announced that the U.S. had sanctioned 271 people accused of being involved in a chemical weapons attack carried out by the Assad regime, which reportedly killed at least 80 civilians. “The United States is sending a strong message with this action that we will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons by any actor and we intend to hold the Assad regime accountable for its unacceptable behavior,” U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said at the time.
Despite this forceful communication with Syria, the U.S. was willing to engage in a sixth round of peace talks with the nation in Geneva on Tuesday. While Assad said last week that “nothing substantial” would come from the talks, UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura, who brokered the talks, said the nations were, to some extent, “working in tandem.” This was far from the case in early April, when the U.S. launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian airbase in response to a chemical weapons attack that killed at least 70 people. The attack marked the United States’s first deliberate military action against the Assad regime over the course of Syria’s ongoing civil war.
In the wake of the attack, Syria and the U.S. seem to be taking small steps toward diplomacy. But, as Monday’s accusations of human rights abuse and Tuesday’s sanctions indicate, there are many tensions left to resolve. As de Mistura put it on Tuesday, “Any type of reduction of violence … cannot be sustained unless there is a political horizon in one direction or the other.”