On the eve of a major speech meant to define U.S. interests in the Middle East, Obama announced new financial sanctions against seven senior Syrian officials for human rights abuses, naming President Bashar al-Assad among them for the first time.
Obama’s counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, also phoned Yemen’s embattled president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to urge him to accept an Arab-brokered agreement that would usher him from office within a month.
And, in a preview of Obama’s Thursday address, senior administration officials outlined a number of economic initiatives that the president will announce to encourage democratic changes in the region, including a total of $2 billion in debt relief and loan guarantees for Egypt’s fledgling government.
The speech is Obama’s first attempt to place the anti-government demonstrations, which have swept away autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt and threatened several others, in the context of American interests and values.
Administration officials say the address will not include a host of new proposals but rather will seek to make the broader point that the United States favors democratic reform as something consistent with its long-term security interest in the region’s stability. For instance, Obama is not expected to call specifically for Assad’s removal as Syria’s leader, officials said.
One senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to preview the address for reporters, said the speech “comes at a moment of opportunity for the region and for U.S. policy in the region.”
“We’re obviously coming off a decade of great tension and division across the region,” the official said. “Now, having wound down the Iraq war and continuing to do so, and having taken out Osama bin Laden, we’re trying to turn the page to a more positive future for U.S. policy in the region.”
The speech will serve as the rhetorical centerpiece of a busy period of Middle East diplomacy for Obama, beginning in Washington and moving next week to the Group of Eight summit of economic powers in France.
Status of peace talks
Obama met Tuesday with a key Arab ally, King Abdullah II of Jordan, who Arab diplomats say lobbied the president to use his address to outline a specific blueprint for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
Obama, who is hosting Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Friday at the White House, inaugurated a new round of peace talks last year, only to see them collapse within weeks.
Netanyahu has argued that violence in Syria, the new Palestinian unity agreement and the changes in Egypt create too much uncertainty for peace talks to begin soon.