The White House on Wednesday said Syria would be "better off" without President Bashar Assad and leveled a new round of sanctions against the country's largest bank and cellphone company, slowly escalating pressure while the autocratic regime continues its crackdown on protesters.
While press secretary Jay Carney stopped short of directly calling on Mr. Assad to step down, his words from the White House marked a public hardening of the administration's position on the embattled autocrat, whose security forces are blamed for the death of as many as 2,000 demonstrators.
"The growing chorus of criticism aimed at President Assad for his heinous actions is not an accident," Mr. Carney told reporters.
"It is because we are all watching with horror what he is doing to his own people, and we are working with our international partners to ensure that pressure continues to be placed and is ramped up."
The Treasury Department said it is targeting the Commercial Bank of Syria and its Lebanon-based subsidiary for supporting weapons proliferation in Syria and North Korea. It also added telecommunications company Syriatel to the sanctions list because the firm is controlled by "one of the regime's most corrupt insiders."
The action freezes any assets of the companies under U.S. jurisdiction and bars Americans from doing business with them.
"We are taking aim at the financial infrastructure that is helping provide support to Assad and his regime's illicit activities,"said David Cohen, Treasury's undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence.
Media reports indicated that Syrian troops on Wednesday withdrew from the protest base of Hama, where they completed a 10-day operation to squash dissent. That did not mean a break in the violence, however, as human rights activists reported at least a dozen people killed by security forces in the city of Homs.
As pro-democracy protests have swept the Middle East and North Africa, the Obama administration has walked a careful line in reacting to outbreaks of state-sponsored violence against demonstrators.
At one end of the spectrum is Libya, where the United States is helping NATO enforce a U.N.-authorized no-fly zone to keep leader Moammar Gadhafi from using air assets to target rebels.
At the other end are Bahrain and Yemen, where critics have accused the White House of not being tough enough on the U.S.-allied regimes. Bahrain is home to the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet.
Mr. Obama and other administration officials repeatedly have said Mr. Assad has lost his legitimacy, and Mr. Carney insisted that the White House has been consistent in its position.
"I think we have made clear that we believe, the president believes, that Syria would be better off without President Assad," he said, refusing to say whether Mr. Obama would call for Mr. Assad's resignation in the coming days.
"The international community is increasingly speaking with one voice on Syria, in unified condemnation of Assad's brutality against his people."
Initially, the administration had hoped it could work with Mr. Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for four decades.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton earlier this year told a Sunday political talk show that Mr. Assad was viewed "as a reformer."
Mr. Obama appointed a U.S. ambassador to Syria in December, five years after the former ambassador was withdrawn to protest suspected Syrian involvement in the assassination of a former Lebanese prime minister.
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