US to Assad: lead transition or step down
DAMASCUS - The United States told Syria's President Bashar al-Assad on Wednesday to lead a transition or step down and slapped him with sanctions in its latest effort to press him to end deadly violence against his people.
The news came as Syrian forces were accused of killing at least eight people in a besieged border town and as Assad said the two-month-old revolt against had been mishandled by the authorities but was now drawing to a close.
US President Barack Obama hit Assad and six top aides with sanctions to "increase pressure on the government of Syria to end its use of violence and begin transitioning to a democratic system that ensures the universal rights of the Syrian people," said an executive order.
The sanctions block any property the seven have in the United States or any "in the possession or control of US persons in which the designated individuals have an interest," said the document distributed by the State Department.
In imposing the sanctions, the Obama administration stopped short of saying Assad had lost his legitimacy to rule, a formula Washington has applied to Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi whose forces are engaged in a war with rebels.
"We are saying that we oppose his behaviour and that he needs to stop his policies of repression and mass arrests and begin a political transition that ensures fair representation and democratic rights for Syrians," the document said.
"We are also saying that Assad is isolating himself from the international community due to his egregious actions," it said, adding: "It is up to Assad to lead a political transition or to leave."
The US sanctions announced on Wednesday target Vice President Faruq al-Shara, Prime Minister Adel Safar, Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim al-Shaar, Defence Minister Ali Habib Mahmud, military intelligence chief Abdul Fatah Qudsiya, and Mohammed Dib Zaitoun, director of Political Security Directorate.
Assad had been spared sanctions until now, two months into the protests that were inspired by other pro-democracy movements sweeping the Arab world, including those that have ousted the Egyptian and Tunisian leaders.
On April 30, Obama imposed asset freezes and restrictions on financial transactions, notably against Maher al-Assad, the powerful brother of the president, who commands Syria's feared Fourth Armoured Division.
Also named in Obama's executive order enshrining the sanctions were Ali Mamluk, director of Syria's Intelligence Directorate, and Atif Najib, the ex-head of intelligence in Daraa province, epicentre of the political violence.
In parallel actions, the US Treasury Department imposed sanctions on two Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) commanders -- Qasam Soleimani and Mohsen Chizari -- for the role they have allegedly played in supporting the crackdown by ally Syria.
The Treasury also imposed sanctions on three entities -- Syrian Military Intelligence, the Syrian National Security Bureau and Syrian Air Force Intelligence -- as well as Hafiz Makhluf, a cousin of Assad.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon meanwhile said that he had been urging Assad to carry out reforms.
"I have been urging president Assad to engage in dialogue and before it is too late, try to take bold and decisive measures to meet the expectations of people. Why I have been troubled in the last several months is that leaders in the region have come out always too late, too little," he said in an interview.
Syrian forces were accused of killing at least eight more people on Wednesday in the besieged border town of Tall Kalakh, according to human rights activists.
More than 850 people are believed to have been killed and another 8,000 arrested since anti-regime protests erupted two months ago, according to rights watchdogs.
Assad said the unrest was coming to an end and acknowledged wrongdoing on the part of security services at a meeting in Damascus, according to Al-Watan, a newspaper close to his government.
"President Assad gave assurances that Syria had overcome the crisis it went through and that events were coming to an end," the private daily quoted him as saying, without giving a date for the meeting.
"The role of the security services is to gather information, analyse it and hand it over to the proper authorities," a delegation member quoted the president as saying.
Despite the brutal crackdown, Syria's opposition has pushed on with pro-democracy protests and defiantly called for a general strike across Syria on Wednesday.
Schools, shops and public transport operated normally in Damascus and other cities, but an activist said a normally busy district of Aleppo, Syria's second-largest city, was affected as was the university campus.
In the northern city of Homs, protesters marched before security forces pressed shops to reopen using loudhailers, activists said, while in the southern protest hub of Daraa the strike was widely observed and all stores were shut.