U.S. sanctions Syrian leader Assad's cousins, others over drug trade -Treasury

A picture of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is seen on a road where vehicles containing aid from Hashid Shaabi, head to Syria to support victims of the deadly earthquake, on the Syrian side of Iraq-Syria border

(Reuters) -The United States on Tuesday imposed new sanctions against six people, including two cousins of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, for their role in the production or export of captagon, a dangerous amphetamine, a Treasury Department statement said.

It said the trade in captagon was estimated to be a billion-dollar enterprise and the sanctions highlight the role of Lebanese drug traffickers and the Assad family dominance of captagon trafficking, which helped fund the Syrian government.

"Syria has become a global leader in the production of highly addictive captagon, much of which is trafficked through Lebanon," said Andrea Gacki, director of Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control.

"With our allies, we will hold accountable those who support Bashar al-Assad’s regime with illicit drug revenue and other financial means that enable the regime’s continued repression of the Syrian people," she said.

Assad's government denies involvement in drug-making and smuggling and says it is stepping up its campaign to curb the lucrative trade.

Among those hit with sanctions were Samer Kamal al-Assad, a cousin of the Syrian president who the Treasury said oversees key captagon production facilities in Latakia, Syria, and Wassim Badi al-Assad, another cousin who the Treasury accused of supporting the Syrian military and of having been a key figure in the regional drug trafficking network.

Also sanctioned were Khalid Qaddour, who the Treasury said was a Syrian businessman and close associate of Bashar al-Assad's brother, the head of the army's Fourth Division. A former commander of the rebel Free Syrian Army was also sanctioned.

The Treasury further targeted Lebanese affiliates, some with ties to Lebanon's heavily armed Hezbollah group, a close ally of Assad in his more than decade-old conflict with opposition and rebel forces.

Among them was Noah Zaitar and Hassan Daqqou. Zaitar faces dozens of arrest warrants in Lebanon but remains on the loose, according to a security source.

Zaitar put out a written statement saying he was "not surprised" by the sanctions and that he considered them a "badge of honor." He criticized U.S. authorities for their "lies and defamation" but did not directly deny the allegations.

Hassan Daqqou was sentenced in 2021 to seven years in prison in Lebanon on charges of captagon trafficking, according to the same security source.

Tuesday's action freezes any U.S. assets of those targeted and generally bars Americans from dealing with them. Those that engage in certain transactions with them also risk being hit with sanctions.

Regional officials say the Iranian-backed Hezbollah as well as Syrian armed groups linked to the Damascus government are behind the surging trade of captagon, smuggled either through Jordan to the south or Lebanon to the west.

Hezbollah denies the accusations.

There is a thriving market for captagon in the Gulf, and United Nations and Western anti-narcotics drug officials say Syria, shattered by a decade of civil war, has become the region's main production site for a multibillion-dollar drug trade that also exports to Europe.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu, Daphne Psaledakis and Brendan O'Brien in Chicago; editing by Mark Heinrich and Jonathan Oatis)