WASHINGTON (AP) — Stepping up pressure on Syria, the Treasury Department on Thursday sanctioned six Syrian officials and a Russian bank for their alleged support of the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, who has been fighting opposition forces in a 3-year-old bloody civil war.
Treasury said Tempbank, based in Moscow, has provided millions of dollars in cash and has helped facilitate financial services to the Syrian government. Throughout the crisis in Syria, Russia has been in Assad's corner, while the U.S. has supported the opposition.
The new sanctions were announced as the State Department pledged $27 million in new non-lethal aid to the leader of Syria's main moderate opposition group, President Ahmad al-Jarba. Al-Jarba has repeatedly asked the U.S. for heavy weaponry, such as anti-armor rockets, to combat the deluge of the Syrian government's barrel bombings and other attacks against rebel-held areas. But the Obama administration has resisted for fear that the arms could fall into the hands of extremist groups who are also fighting Assad's military.
"We've had difficult moments in this journey," Secretary of State John Kerry said at the start of a meeting with al-Jarba at the State Department. "But we are committed to do our part to support the moderate opposition in its efforts to provide a legitimate voice to the aspirations and hopes of the Syrian people."
If approved by Congress, the aid would help provide equipment such as generators, radios, trucks, and search and rescue kits to rebel fighters or nongovernment organizations that oppose Assad. It also would provide food to needed areas and technical equipment for independent Syrian media.
"The Syrian people (are) looking to the superpower and country that plays a leading role in the world," al-Jarba told Kerry. "And we look forward also to work with you now and in the future."
The Treasury Department sanctions also targeted Tempbank's senior executive, Mikhail Gagloev, who the U.S. claims has personally traveled to the Syrian capital of Damascus to make deals with Assad's government.
"In one instance, Tempbank arranged to deliver millions of dollars in cash to Vnukovo Airport in Moscow for pickup by cash couriers working for the Central Bank of Syria," the department said in a statement. "In addition to its close cooperation with the Central Bank of Syria, Tempbank has facilitated deals and provided financial services to SYTROL, a Syrian state oil company sanctioned by the United States and the European Union."
The sanctions freeze assets they hold within U.S. jurisdictions and prohibit U.S. citizens from doing business with them.
David Cohen, Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said the action builds on the department's ongoing effort to apply economic pressure on the Syrian government by "choking off access to the international financial system."
"We are committed to deterring those who contribute to violence and instability in Syria and will continue to aggressively target individuals and entities supporting the Assad regime," Cohen said.
Two Syrian refining businesses, Banias Refinery Co. and Homs Refinery Co., also were placed on the U.S. sanctions list.
Brig Gen. Bassam al-Hassan, an adviser to Assad, was among the Syrian officials sanctioned. Al-Hassan is Assad's representative to Syria's government agency responsible for developing and producing nonconventional weapons and missiles, the department said. An Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack near Damascus that killed hundreds of people was blamed on Assad's government and brought the United States to the brink of military intervention in Syria. Damascus denied involvement.
The five other Syrian officials sanctioned were: Hussein Arnous, minister of public works; Ahmad al-Qadri, minister of agriculture; Ismael Ismael, minister of finance; Kinda al-Shammat, minister of social affairs and a former Syrian representative to the U.N. Development Fund, and Hassan Hijazi, minister of labor.
To date, the United States has imposed sanctions on nearly 200 individuals and entities since the onset of unrest in Syria, including the government of Syria, its central bank, and affiliated oil companies.
More than 150,000 people have been killed in clashes between rebels and forces loyal to Assad, with millions of others displaced by the war.
AP National Security Writer Lara Jakes contributed to this report.