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US lawmakers seek answers after removal of sanctions on Assad-linked companies

Three Republican congressmen said there was 'inadequate consultation with Congress' over the removal of the sanctions
Last year, the Trump administration imposed a range of sanctions on individuals and companies associated with the Syrian government.
Last year, the Trump administration imposed a range of sanctions on individuals and companies associated with the Syrian government (AFP)
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Washington

Three US congressmen sent a letter to the Biden administration demanding an investigation into the lifting of sanctions on businesses owned by a Syrian entrepreneur linked to President Bashar al-Assad.

The letter, addressed to US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, sought "copies of all documents and communications" related to the removal of a number of entities and individuals tied to Samer Foz from the US sanctions list.

It was sent by Republican Congressman Bryan Steil, a member of the House Financial Services Committee, along with his Republican colleagues Jim Banks and Joe Wilson, who serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

"The lifting of sanctions on entities connected to Syrian oligarch Samer Foz are of great concern. As you are aware, Foz was sanctioned by the Trump administration on 11 June 2019 for being one of the most significant direct funders of the brutal Assad regime's war crimes in Syria," the letter read.

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The US imposed sanctions on Foz in 2019, saying he had built luxury hotels and facilities on land stolen from Syrian refugees.

Last week, the US Treasury Department removed a number of individuals and companies associated with Foz, including Ahmad Ghalebani and the Dubai-based ASM International General Trading Company, from its sanctions list.

The Treasury Department did not respond to Middle East Eye's request for comment by the time of this article's publication.

The letter said that "there was inadequate consultation with Congress" before Foz's companies were removed from the sanctions list, rejecting a previous statement by the US Treasury Department that "these delistings are a result of a verified change in behaviour or status on the part of the sanctioned parties".

Last year, the Trump administration imposed a range of sanctions on individuals and companies associated with the Syrian government under the Caesar Act, a law that was put into effect last year.

The legislation aims to deter "bad actors who continue to aid and finance the Assad regime's atrocities against the Syrian people while simply enriching themselves".

Iran nuclear talks

In their letter to Yellen, the congressmen linked the removal to talks between the Biden administration and Iran in Vienna over a return to the 2015 nuclear deal, noting that Iranian entities had also been removed from the Treasury Department's sanctions list.

"The timing of the delistings on Foz's companies as well as on the Iranian entities coming a few days before the next round of nuclear talks with Iran in Vienna raises major questions," the letter read.

Iran has long been allied with the Syrian government, led by Assad.

Tehran has always denied sending forces to fight in the brutal conflict that began in 2011 with the brutal suppression of pro-democracy protests, saying it only has military advisers there.

But along with Moscow, Tehran has played a key role supporting Assad in the war that has ravaged the country and killed more than 380,000 people and displaced millions.

In 2018, the Trump administration pulled out of the 2015 nuclear agreement, imposing stringent sanctions on Iran. Recently, talks over a US return to the deal have made progress.

Earlier this week, Iran said it had reached a broad agreement over the lifting of sanctions on its industrial sector, including oil.

While the Biden administration has been seeking a return to the nuclear accord with Iran and world powers, many Republicans in Congress have opposed such an effort. 

A group of Republican senators introduced a bill last week that would make any deal with Iran over its nuclear programme subject to Senate approval.