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US Puts Sanctions on Relative of Syrian President

The United States Wednesday imposed sanctions against a prominent Syrian businessman in a bid to punish Damascus for alleged efforts to undermine the governments of Iraq and Lebanon. The targeted Syrian, Rami Makhluf, is a cellphone magnate and a relative of Syrian President Bashar Assad. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

The sanctions announced by the Treasury Department are part of a stepped-up effort by the Bush administration to put pressure on the Syrian leadership and close associates for what are seen here as efforts to de-stabilize Lebanon and Iraq.

The targeted Syrian, Rami Makhluf, is considered one of the most powerful businessmen in Syria and his holdings include, among other things, a controlling interest in the country's mobile telephone monopoly, SyriaTel.

The action will freeze assets Makhluf may have in U.S. financial institutions and prohibit American firms and individuals from having any dealings with him.

The action is the first under an executive order from President Bush last week expanding U.S. sanctions against Syria to include corrupt business activity that allows the Bashar Assad government to maintain its hold on power.

At a Washington news conference, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near eastern Affairs David Welch said Makhluf has used his family ties and other connections with the Syrian leadership to, in his words, "enrich himself and others in the regime:"

"He's a businessman," said David Welch. "He has lots of interests. It's interesting that his uncle is the President. His father commanded the Republican Guard. He comes from a certain family. I think this business establishment that he heads wasn't created by the Harvard School of Business. And it's not unusual that people should focus their attention on people like that, who serve the interests of the regime."

U.S. Treasury Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Stuart Levey said Makhluf used intimidation and close ties with the Syrian leadership to obtain improper business advantages at the expense of ordinary Syrians.

Levey said Syria is well-known for its corrupt business environment, and said the role the Assad family and its inner circle exerts over the economy concentrates wealth in their hands and allows them to deny freedom to Syrians and undercut peace and stability in the region.

President Bush signed the enabling order for the new sanctions February 13. It builds on one he issued in 2004 that, among other things, banned all U.S. exports to Syria except for food and medicine and cut direct commercial airline links.

Despite U.S. complaints over Syria's role in Lebanon and Iraq, the two countries still have diplomatic relations though the U.S. ambassador was withdrawn from Damascus in 2005.