Washington has announced sanctions on Bashar al-Assad, Syrian president, and suggested he leave office in the wake of a crackdown the US estimates has killed almost 1,000 people.
The targeting of Mr Assad, who was excluded from recent rounds of US and European sanctions, increases Washington’s pressure on Damascus and opens the way for the European Union, which has much greater economic ties with Syria, to follow suit.
A senior US administration official described the sanctions as “a really decisive step to increase the pressure on the government of Syria to end its use of wanton violence . . . and begin transitioning towards a democratic system”.
He added, in much stronger language than the US has used before: “President Assad has a clear choice – either to lead this transition to democracy or to leave.”
Also included in the sanctions, set out in an executive order signed by President Barack Obama on Wednesday, are Syria’s vice-president, prime minister, minister of defence, interior minister, the head of military intelligence and the head of the political security directorate.
Accompanying measures target 10 other individuals and entities, including Hafiz Makhlouf, a cousin of Mr Assad, the Syrian military and air force intelligence, the country’s national security bureau, and two Iranian Revolutionary Guard officers the US says have aided the crackdown.
The sanctions freeze the assets of those designated and ban US entities from doing business with them.
While such a step may be largely symbolic, the senior US administration official said many financial institutions often took voluntary action to impose asset freezes on their own behalf.
The US had previously resisted imposing sanctions on Mr Assad himself – partly out of fear of what a replacement regime would be like – but officials say the recent bloodshed has changed the equation.
Amid reports of mass graves and shelling of civilians, Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, called for an end to the violence when she provided this week the estimate of almost 1,000 dead. Lady Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief, signalled further EU sanctions.
The crackdown continued on Wednesday, with artillery shelling and heavy machinegun fire reported in the town of Tel Kalakh near the Lebanese border.
In an apparently conciliatory gesture, Mr Assad admitted security forces had made mistakes in their response to protests, a Syrian newspaper reported on Wednesday, and said they would be trained to prevent “excesses” in future.
An Al Jazeera correspondent who has been missing since arriving at Damascus airport nearly 3 weeks ago was released on Wednesday. Dorothy Parvaz arrived in Doha from Iran, where she had apparently been deported by Syrian authorities.