President Obama on Wednesday froze the assets of Syrian President Bashar Assad over his bloody crackdown on protesters, while Mr. Obama prepared to announce a broad job-creation plan for emerging democracies in the Middle East that includes up to $2 billion in U.S. aid for Egypt and Tunisia.
Syria, however, intensified its reprisals Wednesday with a coordinated attack on several suburbs of the capital, Damascus, and on a city in the southern governorate of Daraa, where the unrest began two months ago.
Mr. Obama said in a letter to Congress that he ordered the sanctions because of violence and repression carried out by “numerous elements of the Syrian government.” In Syria, Mr. Assad blamed some of the civilian deaths on poorly trained security forces.
It was the first time the Obama administration targeted Mr. Assad personally for sanctions. Two months ago, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton gave credence to U.S. lawmakers’ description of Mr. Assad as a “reformer.” This week, she decried his “heavy-handed brutal crackdown.”
In addition to Mr. Assad, the Treasury Department froze U.S. assets of Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Shara, Prime Minster Adel Safar, Defense Minister Ali Habib Mahmoud, military intelligence chief Abdul Fatah Qudsiya, Interior Minister Muhammad Ibrahim al-Shaar, and Muhammad Dib Zaitoun, head of the country’s political security directorate.
Mr. Obama has been criticized for moving too slowly to aid the protesters’ efforts. Last month, the Obama administration froze the assets of three other high-level Syrian government officials.
David Cohen, Treasury’s acting undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said the action “sends an unequivocal message to President Assad, the Syrian leadership and regime insiders that they will be held accountable for the ongoing violence and repression in Syria.” The Commerce Department also halted export of certain aircraft parts for “long-range” planes not in use.
On Wednesday, a senior White House official underlined the new tack, saying Mr. Assad “has a clear choice: either lead this transition to democracy, or to leave.”
However, Mr. Obama has made even more emphatic statements about the crackdown and ongoing civil war in nearby Libya, saying last month it was “impossible to imagine a future for Libya with Gadhafi in power” and sending U.S. military assets to attack Libyan government forces.
There has been no indication that the U.S. and its NATO allies are considering using force against Syria.
More than 850 civilians have been killed and thousands more detained since protests began, said anti-government activists who tried to organize a nationwide general strike Wednesday.
Reports in Syria indicated that the call was not widely heeded. Schools, shops and other businesses were open in Damascus and other Syrian cities amid a tight security presence.
“Everything is open,” said a resident of the central city of Homs, which has been the site of daily anti-government protests in the past weeks. He said residents would not dare comply with the strike in light of the heavy security presence in the city.
The latest crackdown is in the western town of Talkalakh, where at least 27 people have been killed since last week, activists say.
Mr. Assad said for the first time Wednesday that Syrian authorities had made some mistakes, but he added that his government has now “overcome the crisis.”
Syria’s methodical repression makes for an awkward prelude to Mr. Obama’s speech, to be delivered this morning at the State Department.
The president is expected to outline his approach for encouraging democratic reforms and civil liberties throughout the Middle East and the broader region from North Africa to Pakistan.
Senior White House officials said Mr. Obama will call for an economic modernization program, including canceling $1 billion of Egyptian debt owed to the United States, and promoting job creation through an infusion of financing from institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
Mr. Obama will also discuss restarting peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, although administration officials say that will not be the focus of his address.
c This article is based in part on wire service reports.