WASHINGTON — The United States slapped sanctions on Syrian President Bashar Assad and six senior Syrian officials for human rights abuses over their brutal crackdown on anti-government protests, for the first time personally penalizing the Syrian leader for actions of his security forces.
The White House announced the sanctions Wednesday, a day before President Barack Obama delivers a major speech on the uprisings throughout the Arab world. The speech is expected to include prominent mentions of Syria.
The Obama administration had pinned hopes on Assad, seen until recent months as a pragmatist and potential reformer who could buck Iranian influence and help broker an eventual Arab peace deal with Israel.
But U.S. officials said Assad's increasingly brutal crackdown left them little choice but to abandon the effort to woo Assad, and to stop exempting him from the same sort of sanctions already applied to Libya's Moammar Gadhafi.
In a letter to congressional leaders, Obama said he issued the new sanctions order as a response to the Syrian government's "continuous escalation of violence against the people of Syria."
Obama cited "attacks on protesters, arrests and harassment of protesters and political activists, and repression of
democratic change, overseen and executed by numerous elements of the Syrian government."
The sanctions will freeze any assets Assad and the six Syrian government officials have in U.S. jurisdiction and make it illegal for Americans to do business with them. The U.S. had imposed similar sanctions on two of Assad's relatives and another top Syrian official last month but had thus far refrained from going after Assad himself.
"The actions the administration has taken today send 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," said David S. Cohen, Treasury's acting under secretary for terrorism, said in a statement.
"President al-Assad and his regime must immediately end the use of violence, answer the calls of the Syrian people for a more representative government and embark upon the path of meaningful democratic reform," Cohen said.
Treasury officials could give no estimate on how much in Assad's assets were located in the United States that would be frozen by the new sanctions order.
The U.S. move came as Assad said earlier Wednesday that his security forces had made mistakes during the two-month uprising and blamed poorly trained police at least in part for the crackdown that has killed more than 850 people.
On Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said she was increasingly alarmed by developments in Syria and called out Assad and his allies for failing to follow through on earlier pledges of reform.
"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," Clinton told reporters. "President Assad talks about reform, but his heavy-handed, brutal crackdown shows his true intentions."
Clinton's pointed accusation about Assad bearing personal responsibility for the repression came as the White House ramped up its criticism of his rule.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said democratic change had to come to Syria.
"The recent events in Syria we believe prove that the country cannot go back to the status quo ante," he said. "Syria's future will only be secured by a government that reflects the popular will of its people."