Obama ups sanctions on Syria ahead of Middle East speech

The day before his speech on the uprisings gripping the Arab world, President Obama ordered the freezing of any U.S. assets held by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad because of violence against protesters in that country.

The sanctions represent a tougher approach to Syria in that they target that country's president personally. The U.S. and European countries previously had rejected that step against Assad, who some had seen as a leader capable of reforming his government.

The executive order freezes U.S. properties and interests of Assad and six senior officials in his government, saying those assets “may not be transferred, paid, exported, withdrawn or otherwise dealt.”

The president announced he was expanding sanctions against Assad because of his government’s “escalation of violence against the people of Syria.”

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Obama said this included attacks on protesters, arrests and harassment of protesters and political activists and the repression of democratic change that has been “overseen and executed by numerous elements of the Syrian government.”

The president is due to deliver a major speech Thursday on the Arab Spring. It follows the cries for government reform in a series of Arab countries that have led to the overthrow of governments in Egypt and Tunisia, a civil war in Libya and violence in Syria.

The announcement of the new sanctions appears designed to highlight the president's support for Arab people fighting for Democratic change in the Middle East against autocratic leaders. It is an image the White House has sometimes struggled with, as longtime U.S. allies have come under protests from citizens clamoring for change. 

In Egypt, Obama did not initially call for President Hosni Mubarak to resign, and until Wednesday the administration avoided the tougher sanctions against Assad, even though he leads a country that has long been an opponent of the U.S. 

Separately, Obama's senior counterterrorism official called on Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh to adhere to an agreement that would remove him from power in a month. Yemen has also been the sight of anti-government protests by pro-democracy demonstrators, and the call also seemed designed to show U.S. solidarity with the pro-democracy movement. 

Obama delegated the freezing of Assad's assets to the Treasury Department. In a statement, David Cohen, the department’s acting under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said that the expanded sanctions “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.”

“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 in a statement.