Obama turns up heat on Syrian gov’t, sanctions Assad

American assets frozen; official says actions send message that regime will be held accountable for ongoing violence, repression.

Assad 311 reuters (photo credit: reuters)
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.
RELATED:Assad: Security forces made mistakes during uprisingNew 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 Syria.”
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.”
His 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.
Click for full Jpost coverage of turmoil in the Middle East
Click for full Jpost coverage of turmoil in the Middle East
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 parameters.
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 September.
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.