Assad 311 reuters.
(photo credit: reuters)
WASHINGTON – The Obama administration sanctioned Syrian President Bashar Assad
on Wednesday, turning up the heat on the embattled leader the day before US
President Barack Obama’s Middle East policy speech, expected to take a harsher
line against Damascus.
Until now, the US has avoided personally targeting
Assad, either by sanctions or by rhetoric. In addition to Wednesday’s
financial moves, which freeze any US assets belonging to Assad, American
officials intensified their criticism of the leader.
Security forces made mistakes during uprising
anti-Syria measures threatened over crackdown
“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 Cohen, acting under
secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence.
“President 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.”
In a letter to members of Congress, many
of whom welcomed the sanctions, Obama said they came in response to the
“continuous escalation of violence against the people of
Additionally, a US official speaking on condition of anonymity warned that “President Assad has a clear
choice: either to lead this transition to democracy or to leave.”
comments raised the prospect that Obama could call for Assad’s ouster, as he did
of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and beleaguered Libyan leader Muammar
Gaddafi, when he takes the podium at the State Department on Thursday morning
for his address.
The lack of consistency in the American approach to the
Arab uprisings has been a chief criticism of Obama’s response to the many
protests roiling the region, and it is one he will have the opportunity to
address in his speech.
Obama is also expected to use his platform to tie
the killing of Osama bin Laden to the Arab Spring and perhaps Iran in an effort
to portray American values as ascendant while those of Islamic extremism as
being on the decline.
Many in the Israeli government hope Obama will use
the opportunity to push back more widely against terrorist groups, including
Hezbollah and Hamas, particularly as the latter has recently joined into a unity
government deal with Fatah that Israel views as dimming the prospects for a
successful peace process with the Palestinians.
There has been tremendous
speculation about how Obama intends to handle the peace process, with several
aides and outside advocates calling on the US to offer an American plan or
Aside from a possible reference to the 1967 lines with agreed
swaps as a basis for negotiation – which would attract attention but not be a
major change in US, Israeli or Palestinian policy – Obama is unlikely to make a
more detailed statement on a US plan, according to Washington sources in contact
with the administration.
Israel is looking for a strong statement that
direct negotiations are the only way forward, given that the Palestinians are
planning to go before the UN with a unilateral declaration of statehood in
From the Arab perspective, it is important that Obama still
emphasizes the centrality of the peace process. Arab diplomats have been pleased
that the president on Tuesday said that with all the changes in the region,
“It’s more vital than ever that both Israelis and Palestinians find a way to get
back to the table.”Reuters contributed to this report.