DAMASCUS: The United States has told Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad to lead a transition or step down and slapped him with sanctions, as a journalist told of "savage beatings" in his prisons.
While there was no immediate official reaction in Damascus, a newspaper close to the Assad regime denounced the sanctions on Thursday, saying they were aimed at pressuring Syria to sever its ties with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas.
For two months, pro-democracy forces have challenged the regime, which has retaliated with deadly force, sweeping arrests and alleged torture.
Adding to those claims on Thursday was Al-Jazeera journalist Dorothy Parvaz, who was freed a day earlier after saying she had been held in a Syrian prison and heard the cries of people being tortured.
More than 850 people are believed to have been killed and another 8,000 arrested since anti-regime protests erupted two months ago, according to figures compiled by rights watchdogs and the United Nations.
In imposing the sanctions, the US administration stopped short of saying Assad had lost his legitimacy to rule, a formula Washington has applied to Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi, whose forces are fighting an armed rebellion.
While the Assad regime repeatedly speaks of "armed terrorist gangs," rights activists say repression has been directed at unarmed people, demonstrating peacefully.
"We are saying that we oppose his behavior and that he needs to stop his policies of repression and mass arrests and begin a political transition that ensures fair representation and democratic rights for Syrians," said the executive order from President Barack Obama, issued on Wednesday.
"We are also saying that Assad is isolating himself from the international community due to his egregious actions," it said, adding: "It is up to Assad to lead a political transition or to leave."
Obama hit Assad and six top aides with sanctions that block any property they have in the United States or any "in the possession or control of US persons in which the designated individuals have an interest," said the document.
The sanctions target Assad, Vice President Faruq Al-Shara, Prime Minister Adel Safar, Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim Al-Shaar, Defence Minister Ali Habib Mahmud, military intelligence chief Abdul Fatah Qudsiya and Mohammed Dib Zaitoun, director of the Political Security Directorate.
Also named in Obama’s executive order enshrining the sanctions were: Ali Mamluk, director of Syria’s Intelligence Directorate, and Atif Najib, the ex-head of intelligence in Daraa province, epicenter of the political violence.
The Treasury also imposed sanctions on three entities — Syrian Military Intelligence, the Syrian National Security Bureau and Syrian Air Force Intelligence — as well as Hafiz Makhluf, a cousin of Assad.
In parallel actions, the Treasury imposed sanctions on two Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) commanders — Qasam Soleimani and Mohsen Chizari — for the role they have allegedly played in supporting the crackdown by ally Syria.
Assad had been spared sanctions until now, amid the protests inspired by other pro-democracy movements sweeping the Arab world, including those that have ousted the Egyptian and Tunisian leaders.
Reacting to the news, pro-regime daily Al-Watan said "the United States and its allies are wasting no time in putting pressure on Syria to force it to change its regional policies."
"What is happening in Syria is part of a US plan aimed at weakening Syria and cutting off its alliance with the resistance," it added, referring to allies Iran, Lebanon’s militant group Hezbollah and the Palestinian faction Hamas.
Meanwhile, UN chief Ban Ki-moon told AFP he had been urging Assad to carry out reforms.
"I have been urging President Assad to engage in dialogue and before it is too late, try to take bold and decisive measures to meet the expectations of people. Why I have been troubled in the last several months is that leaders in the region have come out always too late, too little," he said in an interview.
Assad said the unrest was coming to an end and acknowledged wrongdoing on the part of security services at a meeting in Damascus, Al-Watan reported on Wednesday.
Al-Jazeera journalist Parvaz highlighted those wrongdoings, speaking from Qatar after being freed by Iran, where she was sent after her arrest on Syria. "I was in a Syrian detention centre for three days, two nights, and what I heard were just savage beatings," Parvaz said.
"I felt I was away from all eyes of the law … I didn’t see anybody monitoring anything, nobody even wore a uniform, nobody had a name, nobody had a responsibility … I would classify a number of those men there as thugs almost … just watching their behavior," said Parvez.
"At a certain point you want to cover your ears — it seemed endless, mid-morning to late at night. At random times you would hear beatings and screams and cries," Parvaz said. "It seemed that Syria just want everyone to cover their ears."
Syrian authorities accuse Al-Jazeera and other international satellite channels of exaggerating protests and of broadcasting images without verifying their authenticity.
Because few foreign journalists can get in to Syria, international media rely heavily on video footage filmed and released by the protesters themselves on Internet sites such as YouTube.