The Obama administration imposed sanctions on Syrian President Bashar Assad and six other officials for human-rights abuses for cracking down on pro-democracy protesters, the White House announced Wednesday.
The sanctions come a day before Obama is to address the nation on U.S. policy in the Middle East, where a wave of protests have deposed at least two governments and rattled leaders in several others in the region. The demonstrations have led to a civil war in Libya and fierce repression in Syria.
The Obama administration has been sharply critical of the Syrian government for its efforts to beat back pro-democracy demonstrators during the last two months of unrest. Estimates vary, but the dead are believed to number from 750 to 850.
According to the announcement and executive order, the sanctions were imposed because of the escalating violence by Syrian officials “against the people of Syria -- including through attacks on protestors, arrests and harassment of protestors and political activists and repression of democratic change.”
The sanctions, to be enforced by the Treasury Department, freeze any assets Assad and others have in the United States. They also prohibit Americans from doing business with Assad and his circle.
The United States had imposed similar sanctions against other members of Assad’s family, but Wednesday’s action was the first directly targeting the president, who took over from his late father as Syria’s leader. In addition to Assad, the sanctions are aimed at Syria’s top officials, including the prime minister, vice president and key Cabinet secretaries.
As the violence in Syria has escalated, the Obama administration has taken an increasingly tough tone with the government, condemning the violence.
Throughout the months of violence in North Africa and in the Arab world, the Obama administration has argued that demonstrators should have the basic human right to protest and that governments should not engage in violence against their own citizens.