The Trump administration issued sanctions Monday on 271 people linked to the Syrian agency responsible for producing non-conventional weapons, part of an ongoing U.S. crackdown on Syrian President Bashar Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons.
The sanctions target employees of Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Center, which the U.S. says partly enables the use of chemical weapons. The U.S. has blamed Assad for an attack earlier this month that killed more than 80 civilians in rebel-held northern Idlib.
“The United States is sending a strong message with this action: That we will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons by any actor,” Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin told reporters at the White House Monday. He said it was one of the largest such sanctions actions in U.S. history.
President Donald Trump has called Assad “evil” and said his use of chemical weapons “crossed a lot of lines.”
Assad has strongly denied he was behind the attack, in which sarin gas was allegedly used.
As a result of Monday’s action, any property or interest in property of the individuals’ sanctioned must be blocked, and U.S. persons are generally prohibited from dealing with them.
Airstrikes on the opposition-held northern town of Khan Sheikhoun which was victim to the sarin attack killed at least four people and wounded 10 others, according to the activist-run Thiqa News Agency and Edlib Media Center. It was not immediately clear who carried out the strike.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least five people, including a child, were killed in the attack on a vegetable market.
In northeast Syria, meanwhile, A U.S.-backed alliance of Arab-Kurdish forces entered the key militant-held town of Tabqa as they pursued their campaign against Daesh (ISIS).An airstrike killed eight family members, five of them children, as they fled fighting, according to local activists, who said the strike appeared to have been launched by the U.S.-led coalition.
The family was fleeing fighting in the northern Syrian town of Tabqa when their vehicle was struck, according to the Observatory, which said the five children were between 6 months and 15 years old.
Supported by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes and special forces advisers, the SDF surrounded Tabqa in early April.
They entered it for the first time Monday, the Observatory said.
“They seized control of several points in the town’s south and were advancing on its western edges,” Observatory head Rami Abdel-Rahman said.
In an online statement, the SDF said it had captured Daesh-held positions in west Tabqa, including a roundabout, and part of a southern district.
“There are now clearing operations in the liberated positions,” the SDF said.
Al-Qaeda’s leader, meanwhile, urged his followers and other militants in Syria to unite and prepare for protracted jihad against what he called an “international satanic alliance,” apparently referring to the Syrian government, its ally Russia, and the U.S., all of which are targeting the group.
In a recording released late Sunday, Ayman al-Zawahri called on Syria’s various militant factions to unite in order to wage guerrilla war.
He cast the Syrian conflict as part of a wider struggle aimed at imposing Islamic rule on the region and beyond. The local leaders of the Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, Al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, have tended to portray its struggle as being confined to Syria.
Elsewhere, authorities began a sixth round of evacuations Monday for civilians and fighters from the opposition-held neighborhood of Al-Waer in Homs, Syria’s third largest city, activists and Syrian state media reported.
Government forces have besieged the neighborhood since 2013, according to the Washington-based monitoring group Siege Watch. Rebels, opposition activists and their families agreed to vacate the district in an agreement signed in March in exchange for the end of hostilities. The government will retake control of the neighborhood after the last of 12 rounds of evacuations are complete, in an expected three to four weeks, according to local media activist Osama Abou Zeid.
He said about 16,000 people are expected to leave the neighborhood, instead of reconciling themselves with the government’s notorious security services. Siege Watch estimates there have been 60,000 people trapped under the siege.
An estimated 1,800 people, including some 500 fighters, left Monday, Abou Zeid said. They are being taken to Jarablus, a town on the Turkish border that is under the control of Turkish troops and Syrian opposition forces.
As the population transfer was taking place, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that the forced movement of civilians in Syria may be a war crime.
Guterres said in a report to the Security Council circulated Monday that the U.N. has repeatedly expressed concern at local evacuation agreements that follow the decimation of an area and result in forced displacement of civilians. He reminded Syria’s government and opposition groups who reach such agreements that forced displacement of civilians is “permissible solely in order to guarantee their security or for imperative military necessity.” Otherwise, forced movements are prohibited and may be war crimes, he said.
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