US and UK impose sanctions on Assad relatives and associates over Captagon ties

Analysts say 'strongest measures' have been taken by Washington and London to combat Syria's role in drug trade

Sanctions were imposed on people and companies linked to Bashar Al Assad, pictured, over suspected involvement in the drug trade. Sana / Reuters
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The US and Britain on Tuesday imposed sanctions on two cousins of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad and several others over their suspected role in the production or export of Captagon, the dangerous amphetamine that has spread across the Middle East.

The measures also target two Lebanese men and highlight how drug traffickers — some of whom maintain ties to Hezbollah — enable the export of Captagon, the US Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (Ofac) said in a statement.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said those sanctioned had enabled the Syrian regime to "continue carrying out abuses against the Syrian people".

"The United States will continue to co-ordinate with our allies and partners to target traffickers of illicit drugs and those who provide support to the Syrian regime’s vicious war," Mr Blinken said in a statement.

The new US designations affect six people and one company.

Britain has said the 11 people it had targeted were businessmen, militia leaders or relatives of the president.

Among them was Samer Kamal Al Assad, a cousin of Assad, who Ofac says oversees key Captagon production in Latakia, Syria.

Wassim Badi Al Assad, another cousin, is accused of supporting the Syrian military and the regional drug-trafficking network.

Also targeted was Khalid Qaddour, a Syrian businessman with close ties to regime commander Maher Al Assad, the President's brother.

The Treasury said Mr Qaddour was “responsible for managing revenue generated” from Maher Al Assad and the Fourth Division's illicit revenue-generating schemes, including the production and trafficking of Captagon.

The sanctions emphasise “Assad family dominance of illicit Captagon trafficking and its funding for the oppressive Syrian regime", Ofac's statement read.

“This is probably one of the strongest measures that the US and the UK jointly had taken against those involved with the Captagon trade,” Caroline Rose, a Captagon expert and director of the Strategic Blind Spots Portfolio at the Washington-based New Lines Institute, told The National.

Ms Rose said the emphasis on suspects in Lebanon was important.

“That shows me that they're looking to target anyone involved in multiple elements and multiple stages of the Captagon trade, from when it's first produced, when it's packaged, when it's sent out and when it's dispatched to destination markets,” she said.

Charles Lister, a senior fellow and director of the Syria and Countering Terrorism & Extremism programmes at Washington's Middle East Institute, said Tuesday's sanctions list was "genuinely comprehensive in terms of picking off all of the main players".

"Better late than never," he told The National.

"[The Biden] administration has been accused of being a bit too minimalistic when it comes to using their sanctioning authorities ... it's encouraging. It shows that even though this is an issue that is now several years old, that it is now finally receiving the attention that it deserves."

But Mr Lister's optimism was tempered with caution.

"If I put my pessimist hat on, I suppose I could also say this could prove to be a sort of box-ticking exercise," he said.

Washington noted that some of the new sanctions were in accordance with the Caesar Civilian Protections Act, but Ms Rose said the action could pre-empt a strategy the Biden administration is now mandated to develop under the recently passed Captagon Act.

The Captagon Act, spearheaded by French Hill, a Republican congressman, and passed under last year's Defence Authorisation Act, states that the administration co-ordinate an inter-agency strategy to disrupt Assad regime-related Captagon production and trafficking.

Ms Rose said the administration was set to begin a 180-day strategy review in June and that the timing of Tuesday's measures was significant.

“This is definitely timed to release a few months before, to show that the US is co-ordinating with its partners and is very serious about cracking down on the Captagon trade,” she said.

The designations block all US property and interests of those sanctioned, as well as any entities that are majority owned by those named.

Updated: March 28, 2023, 5:16 PM