- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Criticized for being too timid toward Syria’s repressive regime, the Obama administration said Tuesday it is still considering steps to pressure President Bashar Assad to end his brutal crackdown on protesters.

“The window is narrowing for the Syrian government to shift focus away from repressing its people,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters. “We are looking at ways to put pressure on the Syrian government.”

More than 800 civilians have been killed and thousands more detained since protests began in Syria two months ago, according to anti-government activists who have called for a nationwide general strike on Wednesday amid fresh reports of killings and mass graves.

President Obama has expressed sorrow over the violence and has called on the Syrian government to respect human rights, but has taken little overt action against the regime beyond freezing the U.S.-based assets of several high-level government officials.

Last month, he blocked the transfer of assets of high-level Syrian government officials.

The administration elevated its rhetoric as Mr. Obama began a week of meetings with Middle Eastern leaders to revive stalled peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. Mr. Obama is scheduled to deliver a speech Thursday on the Middle East and the democratic revolutions that have rocked Damascus and other capitals across the region.

Also Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and European Union diplomats warned of “additional steps” against Syria if Mr. Assad does not change course.

“President Assad talks about reform, but his heavy-handed brutal crackdown shows his true intentions,” Mrs. Clinton said. “They have embraced the worst tactics of their Iranian ally and they have refused to honor the legitimate aspirations of their own people in Syria.”

Syrian activists seek a nonviolent showdown Wednesday. They are calling on students and workers to stay home and on merchants not to open for business, in the hope that they can bring the country to a standstill and expose the Assad regime’s support as weak without putting lives at risk.

“It will be a day of punishment for the regime from the free revolutionaries. … Massive protests, no schools, no universities, no stores or restaurants and even no taxis. Nothing,” said a statement at the Syrian Revolution 2011 main Facebook page.

Syrian activists and hundreds of refugees in neighboring Lebanon told reporters Tuesday about more government violence, including public executions by security forces in the streets of Talkalakh, a western town of about 70,000 people. At least 16 people have been killed in that city alone.

The National Organization for Human Rights said Tuesday that more than 40 people have been killed in villages near Daraa, Syria, the epicenter of the uprising, in the past week. Group leader Ammar Qurabi told the Associated Press in Lebanon that two graves containing more than a combined 30 bodies were found Monday in Daraa.

Meanwhile on Tuesday, Jordan’s King Abdullah II met with Mr. Obama at the White House to secure a pledge of U.S. support for economic aid through the Overseas Private Investment Corp. and 50,000 metric tons of U.S. wheat.

The king thanked Mr. Obama for his economic aid and for his “continued interest and support” for negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.

Mr. Obama said they agreed that political and economic reforms are critical to the future of the Middle East.

“So much of what’s taking place has to do with the aspirations of young people throughout the Arab world for their ability to determine their own fate, to get an education, to get a job, to be able to support a family,” Mr. Obama said. “And that means some of the old structures that were inhibiting their ability to progress have to be reworked.”

Popular uprisings this year have swept the region from Tunisia to Syria. Mr. Obama’s speech will lay out his approach for encouraging democracy in those countries. But King Abdullah told the president Tuesday that progress between Israel and the Palestinian Authority is the “core issue of the Middle East.”

The administration, however, suggested that the king and others hoping for a focus on Israel should shift their expectations.

“The speech is not about the Middle East peace process,” Mr. Carney said. “It will include a discussion of the conflict between the Israelis, the Palestinians and the peace process, but it is a much broader speech than that, [and] looks at developments in the entire region.”

Mr. Obama’s spokesman said it is a moment of opportunity for everyone in the Middle East, including Israelis and Palestinians.

“There is historic change taking place in the region and proof that there are universal aspirations - a desire for greater freedom, greater political freedom and economic prosperity that crosses borders, crosses ethnicities, crosses nationalities,” he said.

Since Mr. Obama took office, Israeli settlement construction and Palestinian movement toward a declaration of statehood - including an alliance between the Fatah group that governs the West Bank and the Hamas terrorists who control the Gaza Strip - have complicated Mr. Obama’s goal of a two-state solution.