U.S. President Barack Obama signed an executive order on Friday imposing new sanctions against two relatives of President Bashar Assad, Syria's intelligence agency and its director, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – Qods Force in response to their part in crackdowns on Syrian protests.
Assad was not among those targeted for the sanctions, which will include asset freezes and bans on U.S. business dealings, but he could be named later if violence by government forces against pro-democracy protesters continues, two U.S. officials said.
The action builds on U.S. sanctions against Syria in place since 2004. The Syria Accountability Act (SAA), leveled against the Middle East country in 2004, prohibits the export of most goods containing more than 10% U.S.-manufactured component parts to Syria.
Obama said in the executive order that the sanctions were being leveled as a result of the "government of Syria's human rights abuses, including those related to the repression of the people of Syria, manifested most recently by the use of violence and torture against, and arbitrary arrests and detentions of, peaceful protestors by police, security forces, and other entities that have engaged in human rights abuses."
The U.S. president said that these actions pose "an unusual andextraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States."
One official said the White House is "not ready" to call on Assad to step down because President Barack Obama and his aides "do not want to get out in front of the Syrian people."
The officials told Reuters that Mahir Assad, Bashar's brother, and Atif Najib, one of his cousins, were among the targets of U.S. sanctions related to alleged human rights violations.
The sources said Mahir Assad is a brigade commander in the Syrian Army's 4th Armored Division that has played a key role in Daraa, where protesters have been killed by security forces.
Najib is described as a former head of the Political Security Directorate for Daraa.
The new sanctions also target the General Intelligence Directorate and its director, Ali Mamluk. The spy agency is accused by U.S. officials of repressing dissent and monitoring individual citizens, and of involvement in the killing of protesters in Daraa.
The fifth target is Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps - Quds Force, which is already under U.S. sanctions for supporting militant groups around the world.
The Quds Force is a branch of the Iranian government's principal security agency which operates outside Iran and has in the past been accused by U.S. officials of interfering extensively in political and insurgent activities in Iraq.
A source familiar with the new sanctions said the Quds Force is accused by the Obama administration of being the conduit for support Iran has provided to Syrian authorities in their crackdown on protesters.
The officials said the Obama administration was also revoking several licenses the U.S. government had granted for the export of equipment or other goods to Syria.
One of the licenses to be revoked, the officials said, would have allowed the Syrians to obtain a luxury aircraft believed to be sought for Assad's personal use.
The new measures supplement sanctions imposed on Syria by Congress and the administration of President George W. Bush in 2004 and 2006.
In addition to the SAA, which is the most sweeping of the sanctions leveled against Syria, the Treasury imposed sanctions on the Commercial Bank of Syria in 2006, alleging it engaged in money laundering.
Before Friday's actions, 20 individuals in Syria also had been designated by the U.S. government for sanctions.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry commented on the U.S. sanctions Friday, lauding the decision and expressing serious alarm at the Syrian government's repeated breach of its people's rights.
Kerry called on the international community to condemn the crackdowns "in the strongest terms possible", saying "Syrians are every bit as deserving of human rights and dignity as the Libyans, Tunisians, and Egyptians and the government should have met their protests with responsiveness not repression."
The senator called the status quo in Syria unacceptable, saying that it is clear is that "we need to increase the political and economic pressure so President Assad understands that he must end the violence and embrace reforms."
He continued, saying that the Obama administration's decision to impose "tough economic sanctions against the perpetrators of these grave human rights abuses is appropriate."
Kerry said that the imposition of sanctions makes it clear to Syria's leaders that killing unarmed civilians has consequences, and expresses hope that this would set a precedent for other countries to take action against Syria, thereby maximizing pressure on the repressive Middle East regime.
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