WASHINGTON — Setting the stage for a major speech Thursday on changes sweeping the Middle East, President Barack Obama on Wednesday ordered sanctions on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and six of his top deputies in response to their bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations there.
The move to target Assad personally came just a day before Obama planned to talk about the Arab Spring that has seen autocratic governments fall in Tunisia and Egypt, threatened the regime in Libya, and seen the government of Syria use violence to try to crush anti-government, pro-democracy demonstrations.
The United States said Syria has killed nearly 1,000 people, and done it with the help of Iran.
The administration's order freezes any financial assets that Assad has in U.S. institutions and prohibits Americans from doing business with him.
"The actions the administration has taken today send an unequivocal message to President Assad, the Syrian leadership, and regime insiders that they will be held accountable for the ongoing violence and repression in Syria," said David S. Cohen, acting undersecretary of treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence.
"President al-Assad and his regime must immediately end the use of violence, answer the calls of the Syrian people for a more representative government, and embark upon the path of meaningful democratic reform," Cohen said.
A bipartisan group of senators lauded the order, saying they hoped it would lead to further sanctions from other countries.
"The president's strong and principled action today should send an unmistakable message that the United States stands in solidarity with the brave protesters in Syria and that the Assad regime has lost legitimacy in our eyes," said the statement from Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., John McCain, R-Ariz., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla.
The Obama administration so far has refused to go that far, not yet saying that Assad has lost the "legitimacy to govern," the wording it used about Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi before joining NATO allies in bombing Gadhafi's forces to stop his violent repression of his own people.
The U.S. on April 29 moved to sanction top Syrian officials but spared Assad himself. Wednesday's move to freeze his assets was meant to signal a ratcheting up of pressure on Assad and his ally, Iran.
"Designating Bashar Assad is a clear inflection point in their policy," said Michael Singh, who served as a senior director for Middle Eastern affairs on the Bush administration's National Security Council. "When you designate a head of state, you are kind of turning the page in the relationship with that state."
The designation adds Assad's name to a list of international pariahs, although whether Assad is effectively isolated will depend on the Europeans, particularly Syria's historical ally France, following suit, said Singh.
A senior administration official, made available to reporters on the condition of anonymity, said he expected the European Union to ratchet up pressure on Assad next week. Whether European allies and other countries follow suit, other financial institutions around the world may follow the U.S. lead anyway.
"It is obligatory for institutions under U.S. jurisdiction to freeze assets, but many financial institutions around the world also take, on a voluntary basis, complementary action and freeze assets," said a senior administration official who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity as a matter of policy. "So the amplification effect of that may be quite significant."
In addition to Assad, the order freezes U.S.-held assets of Syrian Vice President Farouk Al-Shara, Prime Minister Adel Safar, Interior Minister Mohammad Ibrahim Al-Shaar, Defense Minister Ali Habib Mahmoud, military intelligence chief Abdul Fatah Qudsiya and political security director Mohammed Dib Zaitoun.
Simultaneously, the Treasury Department said it was targeting two Iranian officials for aiding the Syrian crackdown. The U.S. said it would impose sanctions for human rights reasons on Qasem Soleimani, the head of Iran's Quds Force, and Mohsen Chizari, one of his chief lieutenants.
The Quds Force is the elite paramilitary and espionage branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps. It's responsible for overseeing Iran's foreign espionage operations and training and arming Iranian-backed extremist groups like Hezbollah.
Though the U.S. had already imposed economic sanctions on Soleimani for other offenses, the move Wednesday appeared aimed at reinforcing the charge that Iran is helping Syria kill its own people.
"The leaders of the Quds Force are providing material support to the Syrian government in its efforts to put down the protests in Syria," the senior U.S. official said. "They are lending their assistance to the repressive activities of the Syrian government. It is obviously a completely hypocritical act on the part of the Iranian government and the IRGC-Quds Force in particular, to lend their assistance to the repression of those who are expressing their universal rights, and it's something that we are quite concerned about."
(Jonathan S. Landay and Lesley Clark of the Washington Bureau contributed.)
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