Syria presses crackdown as US imposes new sanctions

Turkey says Assad will launch reforms within weeks; Damascus’s UN envoy compares unrest to UK riots, slams Britain’s ‘hypocrisy’

Amatuer video of a tank in Hama 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Amatuer video of a tank in Hama 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Syrian forces killed at least five people on Thursday in an assault on two northern towns, as Damascus pushes ahead in its counterinsurgency campaign despite new US sanctions and regional calls to end the bloodshed.
The United States, saying the world was watching “in horror,” imposed sanctions on Wednesday on a Syrian state bank and on Syria’s biggest mobile telephone company, to target the financial infrastructure propping up President Bashar Assad’s autocratic rule.
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Regional powers Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have all added pressure on Assad to stop the violence, although no country has proposed the kind of military intervention being carried out by NATO forces against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said on Wednesday that tanks have begun leaving the Syrian central city of Hama, and that Ankara expects the Assad government to start reforms within 15 days.
Erdogan said Turkey had told Syria in talks on Tuesday to end the military repression.
“In Syria, the state is pointing guns at its own people,” he said. “Turkey’s message to Assad is very clear: Stop all kinds of violence and bloodshed.”
Addressing a meeting of his ruling AK Party, Erdogan called on Damascus to meet the democracy demands of the Syrian people.
“We hope that all will be realized in 10-15 days, and steps taken toward the reform process in Syria.”
At least 1,700 civilians have been killed in the unrest, rights groups say, and a series of military assaults on cities and town since the start of Ramadan 10 days ago has sharpened international condemnation.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it had the names of five people killed and 16 wounded in morning raids by security forces backed by tanks on Qusair, near the Lebanon border, after overnight anti-government protests. Another activist group, the Syrian Revolution Coordinating Union, said it had identified at least nine people, including a woman and a baby, killed by random gunfire in Qusair.
Around 14 tanks and armored vehicles also swept into Saraqeb, a town on Syria’s main north-south highway that has seen daily demonstrations, and 100 people were arrested by the security forces, residents said by telephone.
Syria’s north, particularly Idlib province abutting Turkey, has been one of the hotbeds of the demonstrations across the country for more political freedoms.
On Wednesday, European members of the Security Council warned Syria that it could face tougher UN action if Assad continued the onslaught, while Russia urged Damascus to implement promised reforms as soon as possible.
But Russia and China, both with veto powers in the Council and backed by India, South Africa and Brazil, have vehemently opposed the idea of slapping UN sanctions on Damascus, which Western diplomats say would be the logical next step.
Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said Moscow had made clear to Damascus that Assad should follow through on reform promises as swiftly as possible.
“They need to have serious reforms as soon as possible, even though we do realize that it takes time, especially in a dramatic situation like this,” he said. Asked if he thought the new US sanctions on Syria were helpful, Churkin said, “No.”
Envoys of Britain, France, Germany and Portugal spoke to reporters after a closed-door session of the 15-nation council convened to assess Syria’s compliance with last week’s call by the world body for “an immediate end to all violence.” They said the Syrian leadership has ignored that demand.
Despite the worsening bloodshed, there appears to be little prospect that Western states will put teeth in their sanctions on Assad any time soon by targeting Syria’s vital oil industry, because of vested commercial interests abroad against doing so.
CNN, quoting US administration officials, reported on Thursday that the Obama administration is set over the coming days to issue the first explicit demand for regime change in Syria.
Washington had been criticized for failing to demand Assad’s resignation earlier, although it has hinted it sought such an outcome after declaring that he was losing his legitimacy as Syria’s leader.
Syrian UN envoy Bashar Ja’afari referred to ongoing street riots in Britain to highlight what he described as Western double standards.
“It’s indicative and informative to hear the prime minister of England describing the rioters there by using the term ‘gangs,’ while they don’t let us use the same term for the armed groups and terrorist groups in my country,” Ja’afari told reporters outside a Security Council meeting. “This is hypocrisy; this is arrogance.”
Britain’s deputy ambassador to the UN called the comparison “absurd.”
“In the United Kingdom, the government is taking proportionate, legal, transparent steps to ensure the rule of law,” Philip Parham said. “In Syria, you have a situation where thousands of unarmed civilians are being killed. That comparison made by the Syrian ambassador is ludicrous.”

Reuters contributed to this report.
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