This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
The United States has slapped sanctions on a Russian company, three individuals, and five shipping vessels for allegedly participating in a scheme to avoid sanctions while facilitating the transfer of supplies of jet fuel to Russian forces operating in Syria in support of the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
The Treasury Department made the announcement on September 26, the same day Russian media reported that Moscow was expanding its Hmeimim air base in the war-torn Middle Eastern country.
“Assad’s despotic regime is under an international spotlight for using chemical weapons and committing atrocities against innocent Syrian civilians and they rely on these types of illicit networks to stay in power,” Sigal Mandelker, Treasury’s undersecretary for counterterrorism, said in a statement.
The Treasury said the newly sanctioned firm, Moscow-based Maritime Assistance LLC, was operating as a front company for OJSC Sovfracht, a company Washington had designated in September 2016 in relation to operations in Ukraine.
The department also blacklisted three managers from Sovfracht for their alleged roles in the sanctions-evasion conspiracy, freezing any assets they may hold in the United States and barring Americans from dealing with them.
Five vessels allegedly involved in the scheme were also designated as “blocked property” of Transpetrochart Co. Ltd, a previously-sanctioned Russian company that allegedly supported Sovfracht.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Vershinin said the U.S. move was “a continuation of the old American policy based on unilateral sanctions, national sanctions, which we regard as absolutely unacceptable,” according to the Interfax news agency.
Meanwhile, Russian news agencies quoted a Russian Defense Ministry official as saying that a second landing strip is being rebuilt at Russia’s Hmeimim air base in the western Syrian province of Latakia.
New structures have also been constructed to protect aircraft against drone attacks, the official said.
Moscow has given Assad crucial military and diplomatic backing throughout the war in Syria that began with a government crackdown on protesters in March 2011.
Russia helped turn the tide of the conflict in Assad’s favor when it launched a campaign of air strikes on his opponents and stepped up its military presence on the ground in Syria in 2015.
The Hmeimim air base has been the main hub for the Russian military campaign.
The Russian military is also using a nearby naval facility in the port city of Tartus.