Treasury slaps new sanctions on Islamist fighters in Syria

The Obama administration on Tuesday slapped sanctions on both Islamist fighters battling Bashar Assad's forces in Syria and pro-Assad militias, in the latest attempt to try to shape the outcome of the country's 20-month-long civil war.

The Treasury Department sanctions were announced in conjunction with the State Department's labeling of Syria's Jabhat al Nusra Islamist group as a Foreign Terrorist Organization affiliated with al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). The dual announcements come one day before the State Department is expected to recognize the newly formed Syrian National Coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people during a conference of the U.S.-backed Friends of Syria in Morocco.

“The United States will continue to aggressively pursue those who undermine the desires of the Syrian people to realize a representative government that does not employ violence against its own people,” David Cohen, the undersecretary of Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, said in a statement announcing the sanctions. “We will target the pro-Assad militias just as we will the terrorists who falsely cloak themselves in the flag of the legitimate opposition.”

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The new Treasury sanctions target al Nusra leaders Maysar Ali Musa Abdallah al-Juburi and Anas Hasan Khattab. Al Nusra has claimed responsibility for some 600 terrorist attacks, the administration said. 

“During these attacks numerous innocent Syrians have been killed,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a separate statement. “Through these attacks, al Nusra has sought to portray itself as part of the legitimate Syrian opposition while it is, in fact, an attempt by AQI to hijack the struggles of the Syrian people for its own malign purposes.”

Al Juburi is believed to be the religious and military commander for al Nusra in eastern Syria, where he operated a training camp after arriving in the country last year from Mosul, Iraq, where he is accused of having participated in attacks on U.S. and coalition forces. Khattab is believed to be coordinating financial and material support for al Nusra from al Qaeda in Iraq.

The Treasury Department also designated the Jaysh al-Sha'bi and Shabiha pro-Assad militias as well as two people linked to the Shabiha. Ayman Jaber is believed to be responsible Shabiha operations in Latakia and planning the July 11, 2011, attack on the U.S. embassy in Damascus while Mohammad Jaber is accused of transporting Shabiha militants to Turkey to attack Assad opponents in that country.

The sanctions block the designated groups and individuals from accessing property or interest on property in the United States or in the possession or control of U.S. residents, while prohibiting U.S. residents from engaging in transactions with them. The sanctions are part of the administration's policy of supporting the opposition through non-military means, including $50 million in non-lethal assistance to the unarmed civilian opposition and nearly $200 million in humanitarian assistance. 

“The violent, sectarian vision of al Nusra is at odds with the aspirations of the Syrian people, including the overwhelming majority of the Syrian opposition, who seek a free, democratic and inclusive Syria and have made clear their desire for a government that respects and advances national unity, dignity, human rights and equal protection under the law — regardless of faith, ethnicity or gender,” Nuland said. “Extremism and terrorist ideology have no place in a post-Assad Syria, and all responsible Syrians should speak out against al Qaeda and other extremist elements. 

“By opting for the use of force against its own people, the Assad regime has created the circumstances that attract the violent extremists of al Qaeda, who seek to exploit civil strife for their own purposes. The sooner the political transition to a post-Assad Syria begins, the better it will be for the Syrian people and the region.”

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