The US will today impose sanctions on the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and senior members of his regime for human rights abuses during the brutal crackdown against peaceful protests that has left more than 850 people dead.
The sanctions – revealed a day before a major speech by President Obama on the uprisings throughout the Arab world – followed a rare acknowledgement by the Syrian leader of government mistakes in tackling the uprising against his rule, as two months of protests continued with a general strike.
In comments to a state-run newspaper, Mr Assad claimed that the crisis was coming to an end and blamed poorly trained police officers, saying that thousands would receive new training. Some rights activists dismissed his statement and said that 26 people were killed yesterday as the army shelled Tel Kelakh, a border town near Lebanon, for a fourth day. "He said the same thing about troops that were based in Lebanon in 2005," said Radwan Ziadeh, a human rights activist based in the US. "We can't be expected to believe this now."
The US move is likely to be largely symbolic. It freezes the assets of Mr Assad and other senior figures, including the Vice President and Prime Minister, that are in the US and bars US companies from dealing with them. "The actions the administration has taken today send an unequivocal message to President Assad, the Syrian leadership and regime insiders that they will be held accountable for the ongoing violence and repression in Syria," said David Cohen, an official in the US Treasury Department.
The crackdown continued yesterday and residents of the besieged border town of Tel Kelakh said that the Syrian security services were carrying out house-to-house raids and that many were without water or electricity.
There were also reports that the army had been machine-gunning the main road leading from Tel Kelakh to Lebanon, which hundreds of refugees have been using to flee the violence. It was not possible to independently verify the claims.
There were conflicting accounts of how many people had taken part in the strike, which had sought to close schools, universities, restaurants and halt taxis. Posts by activists on Facebook suggested there had been strong participation in Homs, with shops remaining shut and protesters marching though the empty market chanting "the people want to overthrow the regime". Wissam Tarif, executive director of the Syrian human rights organisation Insan, said "many people have participated".
He added: "I know it's working very well in Homs, but we don't have a clear view. A lot of people didn't go to work and a lot of people didn't open shops."
However other Syrians reported that the call for a strike, which initially came from an announcement on Facebook urging a "day of punishment for the regime from the free revolutionaries" had fallen on deaf ears. Damascus was reportedly largely unaffected.
President Assad, who carried Western hopes of a more open, less despotic Syria when he succeeded his father, Hafez, in 2000, has struggled to contain the nationwide uprising since it erupted in the southern Syrian city of Deraa in mid-March. The trigger for the insurrection was the arrest of 15 young boys who had sprayed anti-regime graffiti around the city.
The security forces, who, like the army top brass are largely drawn from the same Alawite sect which Mr Assad and his family belongs to, have responded with deadly force. A demonstration in Deraa on 18 March was met with live fire, and, as protests spread around the country, similar tactics were used to attempt to crush the uprising.
Arab Spring round-up
The protests which swept through the Middle East have their origins in the small town of Sidi Bouzid in the Tunisian interior, where the suicide of a vegetable seller set off a chain of demonstrations which led to the toppling on 14 January of president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the first Arab dictator to fall. The United States did not see the wave of popular unrest coming and was slow to throw its weight behind protests. Since the revolution, Tunisia has floundered, with an interim government struggling to bring order and a populous angry at the slow pace of economic and democratic reform.
The next leader to fall was Hosni Mubarak, whose 30-year rule came crashing down with his resignation on 11 February in the face of massive protests. Despite his harsh crackdown during the unrest, the US was slow to condemn its long-time ally, who had sold himself as a vital bulwark against Islamist extremism in the Middle East. Stability has yet to return to Egypt, where the ruling military council faces lawlessness and continuing protests, despite the promise of elections and moves to put Mubarak and his allies on trial.
The Arab Spring appeared to grind to a halt in Bahrain, where the ruling Sunni monarchy was uncompromising in its crushing of February demonstrations, shooting protesters and rounding up critics. Saudi Arabia also sent troops to back the Bahraini authorities, fearful of unrest among its own Shia population. The US has to walk a fine line on Bahrain – its Navy's Fifth Fleet is stationed in the kingdom, and it is on a crucial oil supply route. And as Bahrain's Shia majority fought on the streets for more rights, attention was diverted to Libya, where a more notorious dictator was provoking people's wrath.
Protests in the east of Libya began quietly in February, but swiftly escalated into the first fully fledged armed uprising of the Arab Spring. When Colonel Muammar Gaddafi unleashed heavy weaponry on his own people, the UN stepped in. At first, the Obama administration appeared cautious, wary of America's already-battered reputation in the Muslim world after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They backed the UN resolution authorising force against Gaddafi, but have let Britain and France lead the military push. Nato air strikes continue, with the rebels and Gaddafi's forces locked in a stalemate in the east.
President Ali Abdullah Saleh is currently negotiating an early exit after country-wide protests. The US, which pumps millions of dollars in aid into Yemen in exchange for a hard line on the al-Qa'ida presence there, has appeared reluctant to enter the fray in the Gulf nation, which is also beset by a secessionist movement in the south, an on-off rebellion in the north, and grinding poverty.