The sanctions that the Obama administration announced Thursday freeze all Syrian government assets that are under U.S. jurisdiction and bar Americans from doing business with the government.
They also prohibit the import of Syrian oil and petroleum products, an essential element of Syria’s economy, to the United States. Diplomats said European leaders, whose countries consume about 90 percent of Syria’s petroleum exports, were exploring similar curbs.
In Washington, senior administration officials said Assad’s escalation of violence since the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, coupled with the recent failure of Turkish-led diplomatic efforts to persuade him to end his military campaign, prompted the harsher sanctions and rhetoric.
This month, the six Arab nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council also condemned Assad’s campaign and called for “an immediate end to violence.” For months, U.S. officials have said that they want to echo, rather than preempt, Arab sentiment regarding Assad to avoid undermining opposition to Syria’s government in a region where Western motives are viewed with suspicion.
The White House decided last week to issue its call for Assad’s departure amid a surge of diplomatic efforts to coordinate its response with allies. “Even if no one else would have joined us, we were still ready to do it,” said a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal policy discussions.
But as the White House began notifying allies, Turkey asked for a delay, dispatching Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to Damascus to make a final appeal to Assad. The Syrian leader soon after sent troops and tanks into the coastal town of Latakia, killing protesters there.
Turkey did not join in the calls for Assad’s ouster. But Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan conferred by telephone with Obama and criticized Assad, comparing his behavior to that of Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi.
At the State Department, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the sanctions would “strike at the heart of the regime” by depriving it of the hard currency needed to finance its security forces.
A second senior administration official said the White House is “certain Assad is on his way out,” calling the protests a sign that Syria is “emerging from what in effect has been 40 years of an induced political coma.”
“They’re not afraid anymore,” the official said, referring to ordinary Syrians. “And that’s when regimes start to crumble and transitions begin.”