U.S. Seeks to Raise Heat on Syria


WASHINGTON—The U.S. is readying sanctions against senior officials in Syria who are overseeing a violent crackdown as Washington and Europe suggest the regime of President Bashar al-Assad is increasingly fragile.

The Obama administration is drafting an executive order empowering the president to freeze the assets of these senior Syrian officials and ban them from any business dealings in the U.S., according to officials briefed on the deliberations.

Unilateral sanctions by Washington on Syrian officials wouldn’t have much direct impact on Mr. Assad’s inner circle, as most regime members have few holdings in the U.S. But countries in Europe, where the Assads are believed to have more substantial assets, will be pressured to follow Washington’s lead, the officials involved in the discussions said.

The legal order is expected to be completed by the U.S. Treasury Department in the coming weeks, these officials said. The move indicates a hardening of the Obama administration’s policy toward Mr. Assad, whose family has ruled the country for four decades.

If Mr. Obama imposes new sanctions on Syria, it will mark a break from his initial efforts of seeking rapprochement with Assad. Over the past two years, the U.S. has eased some of the financial penalties imposed on Damascus by the George W. Bush administration. And in January, Mr. Obama returned a U.S. ambassador to Syria for the first time in nearly six years.

The U.S. in 2004 imposed expansive trade sanctions on Syria, barring virtually all imports or exports between Washington and Damascus. Mr. Bush also imposed financial penalties on Syria officials for their alleged support of militants in Iraq and involvement in corruption.

A new executive order would specifically target Syrian officials for human-rights abuses.

Still, a number of the U.S.’s Mideast allies, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, remain wary of destabilizing the Assad regime. Israel fears an even more radical government coming to power in Damascus, while Arab leaders worry it could foment more revolutions in the region. U.S. officials say Washington’s cautious approach toward Damascus has been fueled, in part, by these concerns.

Syria’s opposition is a mix of secular-nationalists, former members of Assad’s Baath political party, and the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. Analysts say it’s very difficult to predict what type of regime could replace  Assad’s.

Syrian forces open fire on mourners attending a mass funeral who were calling for an end to the Syrian president’s rule. Video courtesy Reuters.

The latest move toward sanctions, which appears similar to the tactic the U.S. used against Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi after his crackdown, would come as international opinion turns against the Syrian regime, which has killed about 200 protesters since unrest began in the country around a month ago. More than 80 protesters were killed on Friday and Saturday as tens of thousands tried to demonstrate against the regime in cities across the country. The outpouring of resentment and anger by Syrian citizens has surprised many observers, and the violence unleashed against protesters has even shaken the support of countries that have long sought engagement with Syria, such as France and the U.K.

The intensifying crackdown has significantly diminished hope in Washington and Europe that Mr. Assad can embrace meaningful reforms, U.S. and European officials involved in the sanctions deliberations said. Doubts are also growing in the Obama administration and among its allies that Mr. Assad will survive the uprising.

“We don’t see how Assad can push this genie back in the bottle,” a senior European official said. “It’s too late for him to get ahead of the curve politically.”

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Human-rights groups are pressing the White House to specifically name Mr. Assad and members of his family who oversee Syria’s security apparatus. Mr. Assad’s younger brother, Maher al-Assad, heads an army special forces unit alleged to be playing a central role in the crackdown. The president’s brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, is deputy chief of the Syrian army.

The White House declined to comment on any possible executive order or concerning which Syrian officials might be targeted. “We’re looking at a range of possible responses to this unacceptable behavior” in Syria, an Obama administration official said, without elaborating on what those options were.

Syria’s opposition, especially within the country, has been slow to gain momentum. But the violence the security services meted out to protesters last week and over the weekend has crystallized an antiregime movement that started with inspiration from recent uprisings in the Arab world that have ousted leaders or put them on the ropes.

“Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya gave us a lot of courage,” said a young Homs resident, describing himself as a member of the Baath Party who wasn’t politically active before now. “We’re more exposed now, but we’re not organized. That’s the next step.”

The crowds of protesters, though numbering in the tens of thousands across the country, remained markedly smaller and less concentrated than those in Tunisia and Egypt that ultimately forced the resignations of their leaders earlier this year. And President Assad appears to retain a base of strong support from well-off Syrians in the big cities and among minority groups, such as Syria’s substantial Christian population, some of whom fear their fortunes would sour if Mr. Assad’s ardently secular regime weren’t there to protect them.

However, on Saturday, two parliamentarians and the top cleric in the southern city of Deraa resigned, apparently over the president’s handling of the protests. In Daraa, Homs, and the Damascus suburb of Douma, citizens are defying the state, using international cellphone numbers to feed information to the outside world.

Statements signed by local committees representing the families of victims in the clashes with security forces called for an end to the use of force and the lifting of emergency law, which was signed into effect Thursday but hasn’t had much impact on the numbers of people arrested and held without charges.

In Homs, a group of clerics and Syrians seeking political change set up a committee to steer a reform process, sending a letter to the president listing their demands days before security forces violently cleared a protest on April 19.

Since then, Syrians who have lost relatives and friends at the demonstrations or in the crossfire at Friday prayer have become emboldened, reaching out to activists in London, the U.S., and elsewhere, according to the activists abroad.

It isn’t possible to confirm some reports. Foreign journalists have been expelled from Syria and those inside are barred from areas of unrest.

For activists inside Syria, too, coordination between cities is extremely difficult because of widespread surveillance by authorities. Protesters, who are reacting to events rather than organizing action, are directed from European capitals that have long played host to Syria’s formal opposition groups, activists inside and outside Syria say.

The U.S., in addition to the sanctions move, is pressing to get Syria’s human-rights record addressed through the United Nations. The State Department is lobbying U.N. members to block Damascus’s efforts to win a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva. The U.S. is also seeking a special session of the Council in the coming weeks to address Syria’s political crackdown, as well as repressive actions by other Middle East governments.

The White House’s National Security Council has begun holding meetings with Syrian opposition figures in recent weeks, according to people who have taken part in the discussions. The Obama administration has voiced concern about the lack of unity among the Syrian protestors and is seeking to learn more about their demands and leaders, these officials said.

Write to Jay Solomon at jay.solomon@wsj.com and Nour Malas at nour.malas@dowjones.com


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