WASHINGTON/AMMAN (Reuters) - Washington imposed sanctions on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and other senior officials on Wednesday in a dramatic escalation of pressure on Syria to halt a violent crackdown on pro-democracy protests.
Assad had been partly rehabilitated in the West over the last three years but Western powers have condemned his use of force to quell protests against his 11 years in power, killing at least 700 civilians according to rights groups.
Targeting Assad personally with sanctions, which the United States and the European Union had previously avoided, is a significant slap at Damascus and raises questions about whether the West may ultimately seek Assad’s removal from power.
“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,” Acting Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David S. Cohen said in a written statement.
A senior U.S. official said the new sanctions were meant to force Assad to carry out promised political reforms. “President Assad has a clear choice: either to lead this transition to democracy or to leave,” the official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told reporters.
The unrest began two months ago when protesters, inspired by other Arab uprisings, called for greater freedoms and an end to corruption. The harsh crackdown on dissent by troops, security forces and irregular Assad loyalists led them to go further and demand an end to Assad’s rule.
The U.S. move, announced by the Treasury Department, freezes any of the Syrian officials’ assets that are in the United States or otherwise fall within U.S. jurisdiction and generally bars U.S. individuals and companies from dealing with them.
In addition to Assad, the sanctions will target Vice President Farouq al-Shara, Prime Minister Adel Safar, Interior Minister Mohammad Ibrahim al-Shaar, Defense Minister Ali Habib plus Abdul Fatah Qudsiya, head of Syrian military intelligence, and Mohammed Dib Zaitoun, director of the political security directorate.
U.S. officials were unable to estimate the value of the assets involved, but leading Syrian opposition figure Haitham al-Maleh said the move meant “members of the regime are now under siege.”
“Any move by the international community may help the Syrian people in continuing their uprising,” he told Reuters from Damascus.
Switzerland said on Wednesday it would impose travel bans on 13 top Syrian officials — but not Assad himself — and freeze any of their assets held in Swiss banks, matching a decision by the European Union last week.
Last month, Washington imposed a first round of sanctions on two relatives of Assad and the country’s intelligence agency for alleged human rights abuses.
Syrian authorities blame most of the violence on armed groups backed by Islamists and outside powers who they say have killed more than 120 soldiers and police.
In Syria, tanks shelled a border town for the fourth day in the latest targeted military campaign to crush demonstrations.
Troops went into Tel Kelakh on Saturday, a day after a demonstration there demanded “the overthrow of the regime,” the slogan of revolutions that toppled Arab leaders in Egypt and Tunisia and challenged others across the Middle East.
“We’re still without water, electricity or communications,” a resident of Tel Kelakh said by satellite phone.
He said the army was storming houses and making arrests, but withdrawing from neighborhoods after the raids. In a sign that the army was coming under fire in the town, he said some families “are resisting, preferring death to humiliation.”
A witness on the Lebanese side of the border said heavy gunfire could be heard from Tel Kelakh.
Assad told a delegation from the Damascus district of Midan that security forces had made mistakes handling the protests, al Watan newspaper said on Wednesday. One delegate said Assad had told them that 4,000 police would receive training “to prevent these excesses” being repeated, it said.
Syria has barred most international media from operating in the country, making it hard to verify reports from activists and officials.
Prominent human rights lawyer Razan Zaitouna said the army and security forces had killed at least 27 civilians since moving into Tel Kelakh.
The state news agency SANA quoted a military source as saying eight soldiers had been killed on Tuesday in Tel Kelakh and in southern Deraa province where protests first broke out exactly two months ago.
It said five of the soldiers were killed when an “armed terrorist group” fired on a security forces patrol near Tel Kelakh, which is close to Lebanon’s northern border.
The Tel Kelakh resident said artillery and heavy machinegun fire hit the main road to Lebanon overnight, as well as the Abraj neighborhood inhabited by minority Turkmen and Kurds.
“Most residents of Tel Kelakh have fled. Some remaining people tried to escape to Lebanon yesterday but the shelling has been too heavy,” the resident said. “Abraj residents have issued a call to (Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip) Erdogan to help them. But it is like the drowning hanging on to a straw.”
Additional reporting by Andrew Quinn in Washington, Nazih Siddiq in Wadi Khaled, Lebanon; writing by Yara Bayoumy in Beirut; editing by Tim Pearce