U.S. sanctions target Syrian president for humans rights abuses

The United States has imposed sanctions on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and six other of the country’s top officials for human rights abuses, the first time that Assad has been targeted by the international community for his government’s crackdown on pro-democracy protesters.

A U.S. state department official told the BBC that it was time for Assad "to lead a political transition or to leave."

President Barack Obama last month imposed sanctions on Assad’s brother Maher, his cousin and an intelligence chief. The new executive order signed by Obama on Wednesday freezes any assets that Assad and the other officials have under U.S. jurisdiction and makes it illegal for Americans to do business with them.

The others named are Vice-President Farouk al-Sharaa, Prime Minister Adel Safar, Interior Minister Mohammed al-Shaar, Defense Minister Ali Habib, Abdul Fatah Qudsiya, the head of Military intelligence, and Mohammed Dib Zaitoun, the head of the Political Security Directorate.

Until now, Obama had adopted a much more measured and cautious approach in the hopes that Assad would respond to international pressure, The New York Times reports.

However, this approach has not been working. The BBC reports that Obama wanted to "increase pressure on the government of Syria to end its use of violence and begin transitioning to a democratic system that ensures the universal rights of the Syrian people," an official said.

The United States and European Union have imposed sanctions on senior Syrian officials but until now have stopped short of targeting Assad.

Meanwhile, Assad has admitted that his security services have made some mistakes in their handling of demonstrations, the al-Watan newspaper reports, according to the BBC.

Assad reportedly attributed the shortcomings to a lack of experience with such situations, which he said would normally be the police's responsibility. He also "gave assurances that Syria had overcome the crisis" and that "events were coming to an end," the newspaper said.

Human rights activists say more than 850 people have been killed and 10,000 arrested in the operation launched to quell dissent that began in March. The Syrian government has blamed the violence on "armed criminal gangs.”