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US, with France, expand sanctions on Syria's “illegitimate” regime

In shift, Western powers move decisively against Syria's president.

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People attend a demonstration to ask for freedom in Syria on June 3, 2011 in Hollywood, Calif. (Gabriel Buoys/AFP/Getty Images)

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Sanctions on the Syrian regime are hurting and will likely be expanded, including to oil and gas, diplomats and analysts said, as Western powers move decisively against a president now seen as having lost legitimacy.

It is a policy shift that will likely have lasting regional impacts, including bringing to an end a decades-old strategy of U.S.-backed peace talks between Syria and Israel.

Economic sanctions first imposed by the United States on Syria in 2004 were tightened on May 18 to directly target President Bashar al-Assad, who joined the likes of Omar al-Bashir of Sudan and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe as serving heads of state sanctioned for human rights abuses.

Since the uprising began in mid-March, rights activists say Assad’s security forces have killed more than 1,700 people, while around 350 members of the security forces have died. Up to 15,000 people have been arrested and many endured systematic torture while in jail.

(GlobalPost in Damascus: A Syrian soldier speaks)

Assad’s two security chiefs, Maher, his brother, and Assef Shawkat, his brother-in-law, were already targeted by U.S. sanctions, which freeze any assets under U.S. jurisdiction and ban them from traveling to the United States.

A few days later, the EU followed suit leading Syrian Foreign Minister Waleed Mualem to label sanctions “equal to war.”

“For a president who sees himself as a world leader it’s an embarrassment and a disgrace,” said an official at the U.S. embassy in Damascus on the impact of sanctions on Assad.

“There are other people who can be targeted. We want the people who are facilitating the human rights violations to stop.”

Both European and U.S. diplomats said targeted sanctions are likely to be expanded to business elites known to be directly supporting the regime, including, for the first time, not only individuals but companies and entities associated with it.

The move is designed to drive a wedge between Assad and Syria’s wealthy elites, particularly the Sunni merchant classes who have so far been pivotal in keeping Aleppo and Damascus, the two main cities, relatively calm.

“There’s been a massive change in Washington with regards to Syria,” said Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who was formerly based in Damascus for eight years.

“In the long run there is an agreement that the regime is going down and so everyone is accommodating their Syria policy to that.”

Syria’s strong ties to Iran, including a defense treaty, its support for militant Palestinian groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad and its political and military support to Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group now controlling the Lebanese government, has long left Western policymakers too nervous to apply pressure on Damascus, lest it use its regional proxies to lash out at Israel. That policy too now appears to have shifted.

Tabler confirmed there were serious discussions in Washington about placing sanctions on consumers of Syrian oil and gas, as well as foreign energy companies working in Syria, a boycott that opposition activists claim could starve the regime of up to $8 million a day, money they say goes directly to pay for the security forces leading the brutal crackdown.

“There’s been a lot of push back from Europe because Royal Dutch Shell and France’s Total have considerable concessions in Syria,” Tabler said. “Sanctions are a blunt instrument, but as oil revenue only makes up a third of state revenue, sanctioning them is a useful tool and will not impoverish the Syrian people as it did the Iraqis.”

Relations between Damascus and the West, particularly the United States and France, two key powers with interests in Syria, took a nose dive this weekend after the French and American ambassadors visited Hama to witness the largest anti-regime protests of the uprising so far.

Furious that the ambassadors had travelled without official permission, the regime allowed a mob of Assad supporters to attack the French and American embassies, prompting U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to say for the first time that America had “absolutely nothing invested in [Assad] remaining in power.”

On Tuesday, U.S. President Barack Obama said Assad had lost legitimacy in the eyes of his people.

“He has missed opportunity after opportunity to present a genuine reform agenda,” Obama told CBS. “And that’s why we’ve been working at an international level to make sure we keep the pressure up.”

He stopped short of calling on Assad to step down, but administration officials quoted in the New York Times said Obama may demand that in the coming days.
President Sarkozy of France called the attitude of the Syrian president “unacceptable.”

“We must strengthen sanctions against the regime, which is applying the most brutal methods against its population," he said Thursday.

Paris has led efforts to pass a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Syria's crackdown on opposition protests, a move blocked by Russia and China.

In interviews with Western diplomats in Damascus it seemed clear patience with Assad’s pledges to reform has all but run out.