US sanctions target Syrian intelligence service, officials
Dozens more reported killed; protests spread to Damascus
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration slapped sanctions on three Syrian officials and Syria’s intelligence service yesterday in what was described as a warning shot against President Bashar al-Assad’s government after weeks of steadily worsening violence against protesters.
The measures targeting key members of Assad’s security apparatus came amid reports of dozens more deaths across the country as Syrians rallied in several cities — including, for the first time, in large numbers in Damascus, the capital — for a national “Day of Rage’’ denouncing government brutality.
Tens of thousands of Syrians poured out of mosques and into the streets after Friday prayers for what appeared to be the biggest demonstrations yet in the country. The large turnout, after days of deadly clashes, suggests that the will of the protesters remains unbroken despite the government’s stepped-up efforts to crush the uprising.
Human rights groups said that at least 48 people were killed nationwide when troops opened fire on demonstrators yesterday. Fifteen of them were killed outside the southern town of Daraa, the epicenter of the protests and a rallying point for the rebellion after civilians there were besieged by army tanks on Monday.
The Obama administration, facing pressure at home and abroad to act against the Assad regime, announced that it was freezing the assets of Syria’s intelligence service and its director, Ali Mamluk, as well as those of Maher al-Assad, a brother of the president’s and a brigade commander of Syria’s 4th Armored Division. White House officials said the army unit and the intelligence agency played leading roles in the violent attacks that have killed hundreds of people since March 16.
The administration also announced sanctions on Atif Najib, a cousin of the president’s and a political operative in Daraa province, and on Iran’s Quds Force, a paramilitary division of that country’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. A Treasury Department statement announcing the sanctions accused the Iranian group of providing material support to the Syrian intelligence service in the crackdown.
US officials made clear that the sanctions were intended to pressure Assad to halt the violence. The presidential order authorizing the economic penalties also permits the administration to add the names of any Syrian government officials who participated in the attacks on protesters or were “complicit’’ in them.
“This sharpens the choice for Syrian leaders who are involved in the decisions,’’ Jake Sullivan, the State Department’s director of policy planning, told reporters.
Another administration official familiar with internal discussions about Syria policy added: “If this continues, Assad could be next.’’
The White House has been frustrated by a lack of diplomatic options in dealing with Syria, a country that is barred from most trade with the United States and is labeled a terrorist-sponsoring nation by the State Department. Washington continues to maintain formal diplomatic ties with Damascus, and the administration has not called on Assad to step down, as it did in the case of Libyan leader Moammar Khadafy and now-deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Several key congressional leaders this week pressed the administration to break publicly with Assad, saying the Syrian leader has lost legitimacy. On Friday, the UN Human Rights Council added to the pressure with a resolution condemning the killing of protesters and appointing a delegation to travel to Damascus to investigate the crackdown.