- The Washington Times - Monday, April 25, 2011

The White House on Monday stepped up its response to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s violent crackdown on protesters there, threatening “targeted sanctions” and condemning the slaughter of activists — but pointedly resisting calling for the sort of coalition now aiding rebels in Libya.

Despite trying to assuage protesters with a promise to end decades of emergency rule, armed forces loyal to the Assad regime have continued to suppress demonstrators in the Middle Eastern country.

News of an assault Monday by soldiers and tanks on the southern city of Deraa — in which activists told reporters that 20 to 25 protesters have died — was announced three days after reports of security forces firing on a crowd of mourners, killing at least 100 people. Further violent crackdowns, including claims of indiscriminate firing by security forces, were reported Monday in the Damascus suburbs of Douma and Al-Maadamiyeh and the coastal town of Jableh.

White House spokesman Jay Carney announced Monday that the administration is pursuing additional sanctions against the country, marking the administration’s first embrace of concrete actions in response to the Syrian crackdown.

Trying to explain the varying U.S. responses to the political upheaval sweeping the Middle East, Mr. Carney said the situation in Syria doesn’t mirror that of Libya, where the U.S. and its allies pushed through the United Nations resolution authorizing some force against Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s regime and imposing a no-fly zone.

“We had a Gadhafi regime that was moving against its own people in a coordinated military fashion and was about to assault a very large city on the promise that it would show … that city and its residents no mercy,” Mr. Carney said. “We had an international consensus to act. We had the support of the Arab League to act in a multilateral fashion. And we supported that move to save the lives of the people of Misrata and elsewhere in Libya.”

Mr. Carney said the administration is “pursuing a range of possible policy options,” including further sanctions against a country already under a host of restrictions on U.S. aid and commerce.

Friday’s bloodshed drew a forceful statement from President Obama, who condemned the violence as “outrageous” and said it proves concessions to protesters by Mr. Assad’s government such as ending the decades-long state of emergency “were not serious.”

The U.S. has listed Syria as a state sponsor of terrorism for more than 30 years because of its ties to militant Palestinian groups and interference in Lebanon. The Obama administration tried to engage with Mr. Assad’s government and in 2009 returned a U.S. ambassador to Damascus after the Bush administration recalled its diplomat in 2005.

Some lawmakers have called on the Obama administration to again recall the U.S. ambassador in Syria in wake of the violence, while others have said the country needs to do more to support the popular uprising.

“This is a moment of extraordinary opportunity for the cause of freedom in Syria, and it has tremendous strategic significance for the region, because, remember, Syria is the only Arab ally that Iran has,” Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent, said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union” program, where he also cited Syria’s ties to Hamas and Hezbollah.

While the White House has called on leaders in Libya and Yemen to follow the example of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and step down, Mr. Carney and other officials have yet to pressure — at least publicly — Mr. Assad to resign.

Instead, they have pressed him to respect the basic freedoms of demonstrators, saying it’s up to the Syrian people to determine their leadership.

However Rami Abdel Rahman, who heads the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told Agence France-Presse that “it is clear that the Syrian authorities have taken a decision for a military and security solution.”

Separately Monday, Britain, France, Germany and Portugal circulated a draft statement of condemnation among fellow members of the U.N. Security Council, according to media reports.

It’s not clear whether Russia and China, which hold veto power on the Security Council, would support such a statement.

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