The U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned four individuals and five entities connected to the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Asad on 6 September 2018. The most interesting was Muhammad al-Katerji, who has been involved in trade with the Islamic State (IS). A relative of his, Hussam al-Katerji, has previously been revealed as funding the jihadists on behalf of the regime, and the U.S. has previously sanctioned another Kremlin-linked Asad regime oligarch, George Haswani, for financing IS. “The United States will continue to target those who facilitate transactions with the murderous Asad regime and support ISIS”, said U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
REGIME TRADE WITH ISLAMIC STATE
Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated Muhammad al-Katerji (b. 1976), transliterated Muhammad al-Qatirji in the designation, and his Qatirji Company because he “facilitates fuel trade between the regime and ISIS, including providing oil products to ISIS-controlled territory. … [I]n a 2016 trade deal between the Government of Syria and ISIS, the Qatirji Company was identified as the exclusive agent for providing supplies to ISIS-controlled areas, including oil and other commodities.” Working alongside the Syrian Ministry of Oil, “Qatirji … has conducted business with ISIS in the petroleum sector, working directly with ISIS representatives to provide oil products for ISIS.
Working with the Syrian Ministry of Trade, “Qatirji is responsible for import and export activities in Syria and assists with transporting weapons and ammunition under the pretext of importing and exporting food items. … The Syria-based Qatirji Company is a trucking company that has also shipped weapons from Iraq to Syria.” Treasury adds: “These shipments were overseen by the U.S. designated Syrian General Intelligence Directorate”, the GID or Idarat al-Mukhabarat al-Amma, the internal intelligence service (secret police) overseen by Muhammad Dib Zaytun, who is also under sanctions for human rights abuses.
Treasury also sanctioned the United Arab Emirates-based International Pipeline Construction (IPC) since it is controlled by the sanctioned Hesco Engineering, “owned by George Haswani, one of the Syrian regime’s middlemen for dealings between the Government of Syria and ISIS”.
OTHER ILLEGAL TRADE
Another “Syria-based middleman” hit with sanctions is Yasir Abbas “for providing financial, material, or technological support to the Government of Syria. Abbas facilitates oil and weapons imports on behalf of the Syrian regime, including involvement in the shipment of goods and military equipment from Iran to Syria on behalf of Syrian Air Force Intelligence and the Army Supply Bureau of the Syrian Ministry of Defense. As of 2017, Syria’s Ministry of Petroleum allocated all oil import contracts to Yasir Abbas.”
CRIMINAL FUEL-PROCUREMENT NETWORK
OFAC designated “a large-scale fuel procurement network that operates entities in Syria, Lebanon, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to secure deliveries of crude oil, fuel, and liquefied natural gas for the Syrian regime.”
The first entity in this network that was sanctioned is Abar Petroleum, “a Lebanon-based company that works with the Government of Syria to evade sanctions and import crude oil and petroleum products to Syrian ports”, namely Baniyas, where the products were not of jet fuel or of Iranian origin. “In 2017, Abar Petroleum brokered over $30 million of shipments of petroleum products to Baniyas”, Treasury notes. Additionally, Abar Petroleum “coordinates the movement of payments for petroleum products through bank accounts belonging to” the regime and its front companies.
Next, Adnan al-Ali, “an advisor for Abar Petroleum” and “a probable agent” of the GID, is sanctioned. “In 2017, Al-Ali used a personal bank account at the Central Bank of Syria to transfer U.S. dollar payments to Abar Petroleum from Mahrukat Company, a Syrian-state-owned enterprise that manages trade and distribution of petroleum products in Syria.”
The Lebanon-based Nasco Polymers and UAE-based Sonex Investments were designated “for facilitating shipments to Syrian ports by serving as consignees and chartering the vessels”. These companies support the operations of the Syrian Company or Oil Transport (SCOT), the port authority for Baniyas and Tartus, identified as a regime entity by OFAC in August 2011.
“Nasco Polymers has arranged and shipped petroleum products to Syria, using Sonex Investments as a front company to pay for the shipments”, Treasury discloses. “Over the course of 2016 and 2017, UAE-based Sonex Investments acted as a buyer, consignee, or charterer for shipments of crude oil and petroleum products discharged at Baniyas … and received payments for providing these services”.
The Lebanon-based businessman Fadi Nasser was sanctioned for supporting to SCOT as the Chairman, founder, corporate director, and 80% shareholder of Nasco Polymers. “Nasser has arranged delivery of thousands of tons of fuel to Syrian ports and has received millions of dollars for facilitating such shipments”, Treasury notes.
These sanctions point to the UAE as an under-emphasised weak point in the U.S.-led effort to build a sanctions wall against Iran and its proxy regime in Damascus. The UAE managed to get itself called “Little Sparta” in some quarters and more recently has gotten a lot of favourable coverage as not just a stable Western partner and reliable ally against terrorism, whether IS or Iran, but as a tolerant state that shares cultural values that can help fight Islamist extremism itself. Setting aside the human rights aspect, whether domestic or foreign, this presentation overlooks the role of particularly Dubai as a clearing house for Iran’s agents and other rogues. The gas-for-gold scheme that helped the Iranians circumvent the sanctions last time is invariably brought up in the bill of indictment by critics of Turkey, and not unreasonably. That the entire scheme hinged on Dubai is rather less stressed. Given that the UAE, and its ally Saudi Arabia, have taken such a hard line with Qatar about the use of its financial system to fund Islamist militancy, the political leverage is there to have the Emiratis desist in abetting an Islamist regime.
It is notable that the U.S. Treasury has still failed to place Hussam al-Katerji under sanctions, though he is well-known as one of the criminal enablers of the Asad tyranny. The even more outstanding case is Samer Foz, who was once a fairly shadowy figure known only to Syria watchers as the cleanskin that was gradually taking over from Rami Makhluf. After a write-up in The Daily Beast in April and a full-out profile in The Wall Street Journal last month, Foz can no longer be said to be so hidden. There are indications from sources close to the Trump administration that sanctions are in the offing for Foz; they cannot come soon enough.