The economic measures, although largely symbolic, appeared to embolden the country’s anti-government movement. Widespread demonstrations were reported after nightfall Wednesday as opposition leaders cheered the mounting international pressure on Assad.
“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,” David S. Cohen, the Treasury Department’s acting undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said in announcing the move.
The executive order signed by President Obama essentially freezes any U.S. assets owned by Assad or other top security and political officials. The others named are Vice President Farouk al-Charaa, Prime Minister Adel Safar, Interior Minister Mohammad Ibrahim al-Shaar, Defense Minister Ali Habib Mahmoud and two intelligence chiefs: Abdul Fatah Qudsiya, the head of military intelligence, and Mohammed Dib Zaitoun, director of the Political Security Directorate.
Syria’s state-run television condemned the sanctions Thursday, the Associated Press reported, saying they “serve Israeli interests” and will not affect Syria’s future decisions.
It was the second round of sanctions against Syria in three weeks. A senior administration official involved in preparing the sanctions said the White House was responding to sharply deteriorating conditions in Syria, where unarmed demonstrators have been attacked by government tanks in at least two cities.
Administration officials did not quantify how much property, if any, is owned by Assad and his inner circle. But Elliott Abrams, who was a top national security adviser to President George W. Bush and is a frequent critic of the Obama administration’s foreign policy, said singling out Assad for sanctions was an important move, even if mostly symbolic.
“Many Syrians believe the Obama administration wants Assad to stay in power,” Abrams said. “This move helps change that view.”
Abrams said the White House should follow up by calling for Assad’s departure. “The Assad regime is vicious, violent, corrupt and unreformable, and we should say so,” he said.
Although it has repeatedly condemned the violence in Syria, the Obama administration has stopped short of calling for Assad’s resignation or saying that he has lost legitimacy as Syria’s leader.