Moderator: Good afternoon from the U.S. State Department’s London Media Hub. I’d like to welcome all of our participants to today’s telephonic press briefing. Today we are pleased to be joined by Andrea Gacki, Director of the Office of Foreign Assets Control at the Department of the Treasury, and Aimee Cutrona, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Levant Affairs and Acting Special Representative for Syria Engagement at the Department of State, to give an update on Syria. Zehra Bell, Director for Iraq and Syria from the National Security Council, is also on this call.
We’ll begin today with opening remarks by Director Andrea Gacki followed by Deputy Assistant Secretary Aimee Cutrona, and then we will turn to your questions. We will do our best to get to as many as possible in the time we have today, which is approximately 30 minutes.
As a reminder, today’s call is on the record. However, the contents of the call is embargoed until the Department of the Treasury has released its announcement. And with that, I will turn it over to Director Gacki for her opening remarks. Please go ahead.
Ms. Gacki: Thank you so much, and good morning, everyone, or good afternoon, as the case may be. I am speaking today to reaffirm the United States’ commitments to human rights around the globe, and specifically in Syria.
Today the Treasury Department is taking action against the Assad regime and its human rights abuses, including torture at Syrian military prisons. Specifically, Treasury today is designating eight prisons and five senior prison officials within the Syrian intelligence apparatus, pursuant to our Syria, human rights, and other sanctions authorities. The individuals and entities we are designating today have been a party to gross violations of Syrians’ human rights, including supervising the torture and killing of detainees.
The military prisons that are part of our action today have been the sites of horrific torture and thousands of murders. The Caesar photos – a collection of images provided by a Syrian defector who worked as a forensic photographer for the Syrian military – revealed that 3,532 detainees died in one prison branch alone. Bashar al-Assad and his brutal regime continue to extend the conflict in Syria by their brutal treatment of Syrians who oppose the regime’s oppressive policies and murderous activities. Such actions cannot continue.
The regime is not the only perpetrator of human rights abuses in Syria, unfortunately. Today the Treasury Department and the State Department are also sanctioning two Syrian armed groups, one of which has killed, tortured, and robbed Syrian civilians while harboring former ISIS fighters in its ranks.
The action today that we’re taking today, demonstrates the United States will continue to advocate for Syrian human rights while the Assad regime continues to attack hospitals, displace families, and terrorize civilians while militia groups exploit the conflict.
Separately, I also wanted to flag for this group that the Treasury Department will today also sanction a Turkey-based al-Qaida financial facilitator and a Syria-based fundraiser and recruiter for Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham. That action underscores the U.S. Government’s commitment to disrupt the support networks of al-Qaida-linked groups that seek to attack the United States and allies.
Before I turn it over to my colleague from the State Department, I also wanted to reaffirm Treasury’s commitment to ensure that humanitarian assistance from the international community reaches Syrian civilians, and we have published a number of authorizations and guidance documents to support that. I’ll save details of the actions for any Q&A that there may be, as well as details on any of our humanitarian actions.
With this, I’d like to turn it over to my colleague from the State Department, Deputy Assistant Secretary Cutrona. Thank you.
Ms. Cutrona: Hi, good morning and afternoon, everyone. It’s also a pleasure to be here to speak with you all. I want to provide some additional context for this important action that the administration is taking today to promote accountability for abuses committed against the Syrian people. As Andrea noted, we are announcing sanctions on several groups and individuals related to human rights abuses and the ongoing suffering of the Syrian people. As you have heard, today’s designations include eight Syrian prisons controlled by the Syrian General Intelligence Directorate, Branch 251, and Syrian military intelligence.
These prisons have been identified by NGOs and other credible groups as the sites of serious human rights abuses against political prisoners and other detainees. We are also designating five senior Syrian officials in charge of the organizations that run the prisons. The conditions that detainees face in these facilities are inhumane. At least 14,000 prisoners have reportedly died after being subjected to torture in Syrian prisons, but we expect many more of the over 130,000 Syrians reportedly still missing or detained faced a similar fate at the hands of the Assad regime.
The regime’s campaign of arbitrary detentions, intended to silence calls for reform, continues to this day. The Syrian Network for Human Rights has reported at least 176 new arbitrary detention cases since May 2021. Confirming the whereabouts and the status of detained and missing Syrians and ensuring the release of those whose detention is arbitrary or unlawful, including children, women, and the elderly, are essential if we are to achieve justice and accountability in Syria.
Today’s designations go beyond just Assad regime targets to include other groups that have perpetuated the suffering and abused the human rights of the people in Syria. In addition to the designation of armed opposition group Ahrar al-Sharqiya, we are also designating Saraya al-Areen, a militia affiliated with the Syrian Arab Army that participated in 2020 offensive operations to return Idlib province to regime control, which contributed to the mass displacement of Syrian civilians and untold human suffering. Nearly 1 million Syrians remain displaced from that operation, and ongoing artillery attacks continue to harm civilians along the front lines.
These designations come at a moment in which we are seeing an increase of violence in northwest Syria. The United States continues to call for an immediate nationwide ceasefire and de-escalation of violence in Syria. Our designations today should serve as a reminder that the United States will use all its diplomatic tools to promote accountability of persons who have inflicted abuses and suffering against the Syrian people. Even as we work to make sure our sanctions do not impede humanitarian aid delivery, early recovery or humanitarian resilience programs or COVID-19 relief, today’s action makes clear that the United States will not forget the victims of human rights abuses in Syria and will use appropriate tools to target and single out those responsible, regardless of the perpetrator.
Moderator: Thank you very much for those remarks. We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call. And our first question will come from Michel Ghandour of Al Hurra.
Question: Good morning and thank you for doing this call. I have a question, and not totally related to the sanctions – to today’s sanctions, but related to Syria for sure. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has said that his country’s deteriorating economy can be explained by the billions of dollars of Syrian deposits he said are tied up in cash-strapped Lebanese bank accounts, and he estimated that Syrians hold some 20 to 42 billion in Lebanon’s banks. Do you have anything on this and is there any connection between imposing sanctions on Syria and the financial crisis in Lebanon?
Ms. Cutrona: Andrea, do you wish to weigh in on that?
Ms. Gacki: Well, today’s action – thanks, thanks. Today’s action actually does focus on human rights abuses within Syria. We are, of course, actively monitoring the situation in Lebanon and any support to the Syrian regime. I would invite – I don’t know if my NSC colleague wanted to weigh in on any point of this.
Ms. Bell: Thanks, Andrea. This is Zehra Bell at the NSC. As Andrea mentioned, today’s activity is narrowly scoped to making clear the U.S. commitment to human rights in Syria. I understand there is a broader financial crisis in Lebanon and in Syria, neither of which I believe are connected to these sanctions. We are looking at the situation in Syria more broadly and are incredibly concerned about the deteriorating humanitarian situation in the country. That is why the United States has prioritized, especially in the last several months, actions aimed at improving and increasing humanitarian access to Syrians throughout the entire country. As you know, we led an effort in the UN Security Council to maintain the Bab al-Hawa border crossing for UN aid. We have clarified through general licenses and FAQs that our sanctions do not block or prohibit humanitarian access, and we will continue to make sure that the Syrian people can live in dignity and access the aid that they need. Thank you.
Moderator: Okay, our next question goes to Hiba Nasr of Asharq News. Please go ahead.
Question: Good morning and thanks for taking my question. Sorry, I missed the beginning, so I didn’t know the context on the sanctions, if you can repeat a little bit, if you don’t mind. And I want to ask about the secondary sanctions. We are seeing that – you mentioned several times about other countries engaging with the Assad regime, and you are encouraging these countries not to engage with. So do you have any message regarding that? And also, my question: If you are going to also to continue sanctions, secondary – impose secondary sanctions? Thank you.
Ms. Gacki: Thank you. This is Andrea Gacki from the Office of Foreign Assets Control. Let me fist give you a quick preview of the action. To remind folks, this is focused – our action is focused on the Assad regime and its human rights abuses, including torture at Syrian military prisons. To that end, we have – are designated eight prisons and five senior prison officials as well as other entities and individuals who have contributed to the persecution of the Syrian people. Details will be available through our press release, so I won’t take you – including descriptions and the basis for the action that Treasury is – the actions that Treasury and State are taking today.
When it comes to secondary sanctions, for all the sanctions that will be imposed today there is a risk to persons no matter where they’re located, a risk of if they provide any material support to these persons, whether individuals or entities. And in that regard, the sanctions we imposed today will have secondary effects and have the intention to isolate these actors and make them even more pariahs on the international stage.
Moderator: Okay, thank you. Our next question goes to Ibrahim Hamidi of Asharq al-Awsat. Please go ahead.
Question: Hello, good morning. Thank you for everybody. Actually, my question is to Aimee, is we know that these sanctions are the first under the Biden administration. So (a) what is the political significance of this? Second, do you think that could affect any kind of – in any way the cooperation, quote/unquote, between Moscow and Washington, especially after passing the UN Security Council on cross-border and Syria aid? Thank you.
Ms. Cutrona: So first I’d like to reinforce that the aim of these sanctions is to ensure accountability for human rights abuses and violations against the Syrian people. The U.S. Government remains committed to ensuring, again, as Zehra mentioned, that our sanctions program does not prevent civilians to receive humanitarian support from the international community, and as Andrea mentioned, the sanctions program contains longstanding exemptions, exceptions, and authorizations for that aid.
We continue to use all of our available tools in order to deter human rights abuses and violations, and we’ll continue to coordinate with our allies and partners on our policy towards Syria in order to push for meaningful progress on shared political objectives.
Question: Russia? Anything on Russia?
Ms. Cutrona: I think we can say that our engagement will continue with partners towards those ends that I just set out today, and today we’re really focused on the question of human rights accountability. Over.
Moderator: Okay, thank you for that question. Our next one goes to Joseph Haboush. Please go ahead.
Question: Hi. Just digging down on a question from a colleague earlier, regional officials have been meeting and have been reported to be meeting with Assad regime officials, including security officials. So I know today’s announcement is focused on human rights, on the human rights aspect. Could these regional officials meeting with the Syrian intelligence or, rather, security officials be impacted by any of these announcements today? Thank you.
Ms. Gacki: Hi, this is Andrea Gacki from the Office of Foreign Assets Control. To the extent – the question is getting at whether these regional officials could be sanctioned for their meetings. Certainly, we’d have to look into it and examine. Sanctioning of this sort is a very fact-based process that we would need to look into. So I couldn’t comment if the – if the issue relates to whether sanctions would attach to them.
Moderator: Okay, our next question goes to Elizabeth Hagedorn of Al–Monitor.
Question: Hi, thank you for doing this. [Inaudible] the U.S. delisted entities associated with Samer Foz. I’m wondering, has the behavior of those entities changed since they were sanctioned in 2019 and since the Treasury Department described the Foz family ventures as leveraging the conflict into a profit-generating enterprise? And then, if I may, can you also give us an update on efforts to find Majd Kamalmaz and Austin Price? Thank you.
Ms. Gacki: I will take – this is Andrea Gacki from OFAC. I would like to take the first question as to the delisting actions against Samer Foz-related entities just to let you know that was the result of a standard reconsideration process that the Treasury Department leads, because sanctions need not be permanent. There is a tap to removal of sanctions in all respects if circumstances change, and that – and the evaluation of the context of the – of those persons involved in that action led OFAC as an administrative matter to recommend changes to that.
And let me – I’m not sure if my colleagues have anything to say on your second question in this context.
Ms. Cutrona: Hi, this is Aimee. Just want to respond to the second question. Bringing home American citizens held hostage or wrongfully detained is a top priority for the Biden-Harris administration, and I want to ensure – assure you that we will continue to closely coordinate with the families of U.S. hostages and we will work tirelessly to reunite Americans held unjustly against their will with their families and other loved ones. Thank you.
Moderator: Okay, our next question goes to Ian Talley of the Wall Street Journal. Please go ahead.
Question: Hi, yes. Thank you for doing this and for taking questions. I wanted to follow up on a question about the flow of funds from Lebanon. You have said that this is specifically designating abuses of human rights, but you have – you, plural, the administration and past administrations have criticized the funding of the Assad regime as supporting the human rights abuses. And so I’m curious about why we haven’t seen more designations of Lebanese facilitators given the extent to which the money flows have been shown to come from Beirut and the assets stored by the Syrian regime?
And then secondly, can you just clarify on the Samer Foz delisting, the company delistings? Presumably, it is because those companies are either dissolved or no longer – have been sold to someone outside of Foz’s network. Is that a correct presumption?
Ms. Gacki: Again, this is Andrea Gacki from OFAC. The questions on Samer Foz and the related delistings, if it’s all right, we’ll get back to you offline. I unfortunately don’t have the details at my present command to give you a response on the exact details of the delisting of those entities.
On the first question, related to the pace of designations or other sanctions actions that may relate to Lebanese or other funding of the Syrian Government or other officials contributing to human rights abuse and other abuse within Syria, I would just note and invite my colleagues from State and NSC to weigh in as well, but that sanctions are just one tool in our toolkit. And I would not – I would not assess – I would not assess a change in posture based on measuring public sanctions designation actions, and just note that it remains an area of concern for the folks who work on this issue set.
Ms. Bell: Hi, this Zehra Bell at NSC. I just wanted to add to Andrea’s answer.
So, Ian, you’re correct; there has been no policy decision to lift sanctions on Samer Foz or any entity associated with the Assad regime for any kind of behavior change. So our policy on the Assad regime and sanctions towards the regime for its destabilizing behavior and for its human rights abuses continues. So I just want to make that point very, very clear.
As Andrea said, the technical experts at Treasury can explain later in further detail about the technical delisting of this specific entity. But more broadly to your question, as Andrea said, sanctions are but one tool in our toolkit in terms of our broader Syria policy. So when the administration came in about five or six months ago, we did a top-to-bottom sort of Syria strategy review and looking at the conflict 10 years in. And it’s clear that while, relatively, levels of violence have gone down, the needs of Syrians have gone dramatically up. And so while all sanctions on Syria remained in place, we continued to focus on improving the humanitarian situation. And as you saw, this is a whole-of-government effort from President Biden all the way down to include Secretary Blinken and Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield to advance the issue of humanitarian access in the country.
So we have worked to try and preserve the existing ceasefire lines to keep violence low; expand humanitarian access through increased announcements of aid, increased access through border crossings and other mechanisms of getting aid to Syrians in need. We’ve stabilized our presence in the northeast for the campaign against ISIS, where U.S. forces will remain. And as you saw today, we are making incredibly clear that as we focus on needs, priorities, and raising the standard of living for Syrian civilians in need, we will not forget our commitment to human rights and making clear that the U.S. policy and position towards the Assad regime and the people who are associated with him has not changed. Over.
Moderator: Okay, we have time for one last question. It will come from Ali Younes of Arab News. Please go ahead.
Question: Yeah, thank you. Thank you all for doing this. My question is: Is this the first sanctions against the Syrian officials and the prison systems in Syria, are they part of a larger administration or U.S. strategy against the regime? Or are they part of, like, sort of like Ms. Bell has said maybe from the NSC, managing the conflict, so to speak, than focusing on human rights abuses and elevating the suffering of the Syrian people? So my question: Is this part of a larger strategy to counter Assad regime, or not? Thank you.
Ms. Bell: Hi, this is Zehra. Thanks for your question. Yes, I would say that today’s sanctions announcement is part of a broader U.S. strategy for Syria, in which, as you know, we’ve identified several key priorities, to include mitigating human suffering and expanding humanitarian access; sustaining the campaign against ISIS; sanctioning, signaling, and making clear our intolerance for human rights abuses carried out by the regime and others as well, other actors in the Syrian conflict; and creating the foundation through these clear priorities, through clear diplomatic, military, and economic effort around advancing these priorities, to set the foundation for a broader political solution to the conflict under UN Security Council Resolution 2254.
So today’s action is not a random event but rather part of a carefully considered approach of this administration over the last several months to identify key priorities in Syria, sufficiently resource them through diplomatic and other means, and make clear that the U.S. values on human rights in Syria are extremely important and something that we will continue to prioritize even as we advance other priorities in the country. Thank you.
Moderator: I’d like to thank Director Andrea Gacki and Deputy Assistant Secretary Cutrona for joining us as well as Zehra Bell of the NSC, and thank all the reporters on the line for your participation and questions. The London Hub will circulate an audio file of the call shortly to those who have RSVP’d, and later today we’ll also circulate the transcript. A digital recording of today’s call will be available for 24 hours. I will now turn it back over to AT&T to provide instructions on how to access that recording. This concludes the call. Thank you very much.