US freezes Syrian assets in new sanctions

US President Barack Obama has slapped tough new sanctions on Syria in an executive order that freezes all Syrian government assets and forbids investment and exports to the country.

The order also targets Syria’s oil and gas sector, a key revenue stream for President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, significantly ramping up pressure on Damascus to halt its assault on pro-democracy protests.

Today’s move came as the United States moved to tighten pressure on Damascus, calling for the first time for Assad to step down over his military assault on the five-month-old revolt inspired by the Arab Spring.

In a statement accompanying the order, Mr Obama said Syria’s attacks on protesters “constitute an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States”.

Mr Obama said the “unprecedented” sanctions were designed to “deepen the financial isolation of the Assad regime and further disrupt its ability to finance a campaign of violence against the Syrian people.”

The executive order prohibits all US investment in the country, exports to Syria, and imports of oil and gas.

It also extended beyond US citizens and firms to foreign companies, approving sanctions against any person or entity deemed to be “owned or controlled by, or acting for or on behalf of” the Syrian government.

The order also sanctions five Syrian state-owned energy companies and prohibits Americans, wherever they are located, from engaging in any transactions or dealings with Syrian oil or gas.

“These actions strike at the heart of the regime,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement read to reporters, referring specifically to the petroleum sanctions.

However, the US has a relatively small stake in Syria’s energy sector, and Ms Clinton has urged India, China and the European Union to impose their own sanctions, which would have a much greater impact.

The European Union today echoed Washington’s call on Mr Assad to resign and said it was mulling new sanctions, but it was unclear whether it or other countries would take the same far-reaching measures as the United States.

The US and the EU had previously imposed sanctions on senior officials but until now had held off on directly calling on Mr Assad to resign, reflecting their hope for a diplomatic solution to the crisis.

The UN human rights chief, meanwhile, said in a report today Syria’s crackdown on protests may amount to crimes against humanity and urged the Security Council to refer the matter to the International Criminal Court.

The Assad regime has been struggling to quash a wave of protests inspired by the revolts that toppled longstanding rulers in Egypt and Tunisia, with some 2000 Syrians killed since mid-March, according to rights groups.

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