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US places sanctions on Syria

Broadcast: 19/05/2011

Reporter: Ben Knight

US president Barack Obama has placed sanctions on the Syrian president following a brutal crackdown
on demonstrators in the country.


LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: The US President Barack Obama is to make a major speech overnight on the
instability in the Middle East and America's future engagement there. He'll announce
multibillion-dollar aid packages to countries like Tunisia and Egypt that have embraced democratic

But he's also expected to condemn Syria and defend the new financial sanctions on President Bashar
al-Assad and six of his top officials.

Meanwhile on the ground in Syria, demonstrators are vowing to continue street protests to force
regime change.

The ABC's Middle East correspondent Ben Knight reports, and a warning: some viewers may find some
of the following images disturbing.

BEN KNIGHT, REPORTER: Much of this uprising has taken place in cities a long way from the Syrian
capital, where the Government could move in, hit hard and then tell the rest of the country its own
version of what happened there.

But last week, the Syrian rebellion came to the heart of the country: the old city of Damascus.
They're chanting about bringing down the system, they're calling the Syrian media liars and they're
pledging to go to heaven in their millions.

For the regime, this is clearly not a good sign.

These ancient streets have been battled over by empires from Alexander the Great to the Ottomans.
By comparison, the Assad family's four-decade rule in Syria is only a footnote.

But just eight weeks ago, it seemed as powerful and immovable as any of the empires that went

When Syria's President Bashar al-Assad bragged back in January that his country was immune from the
wave of protest in the Arab world, there was good reason to believe him. In a region where regimes
rely on brutal secret police to control dissent, Syria has long had one of the most feared. Even
those who've managed to get out of the country in the past (inaudible) are still terrified of
speaking publicly about what's going on behind them.

'ALI' (voiceover translation): I'm very afraid. If they see me, they will catch me. I would rather
be killed than arrested because they will torture me.

BEN KNIGHT: Ali crossed this border into Jordan after one of the major protests in Daraa. He says
the city that lies just a few kilometres on the other side of this crossing is now all but empty.
The young people there have been arrested or have fled. The dead, he says, have been taken from the
morgues and buried in mass graves.

'ALI' (voiceover translation): They have been washing the streets clean with water and they patched
up all the bullet holes. They even repaired the marks of the tank tracks on the roads. They wanna
hide their crimes when they allow the human rights groups to see what happened.

BEN KNIGHT: Syria's uprising has followed a stunningly similar path to the rebellions in Tunisia
and Egypt. At first the regime tried to control the protests with tear gas and fear, but when that
didn't work, the President promised vague reforms. But the protestors didn't believe him, the
demonstrations continued, and then things got really nasty.

Estimates vary over exactly how many have died in Syria, but the figure's in the hundreds, and
thousands more have been wounded or arrested.

The regime might have been able to keep out the foreign media, but just as they did in Tunisia,
Egypt and Iran, the people have been filming the atrocities on their mobile phones and sharing it
with each other and the world.

The Syrian regime claims the protestors are armed terrorists, but images like these only inspire
more demonstrations.

When he took over power from his father in 2000, Bashar al-Assad was seen as a moderate, a
potential reformer who even talked of modernising and liberalising his country. And in recent
years, Bashar al-Assad has gradually drawn closer to the West.

But now the Syrian President faces a stark choice, and it looks increasingly as though he's
choosing his father's approach to dealing with political opposition.

And that's put the West in a tricky situation. After the NATO intervention in Libya, Syrian
protestors are wondering when someone is going to come and help them.

Today the United States announced that it would for the first time impose sanctions directly on
Syria's President Bashar al-Assad. But the European Union has, until now, refused to go that far.

And sanctions are still a long way short of the kind of action that the allies took in Libya. But
Moammar Gaddafi had no real friends in the world, other than a few African dictators, while Syria
is an ally of Iran and Hezbollah.

If the Syrian regime falls it has the potential to profoundly change the landscape of the entire
Middle East, from Iran to Israel. A democratic Syria could see Iran become even more isolated after
losing one of its few allies in the region. But if this rebellion descends into fighting between
Sunni and Shia Muslims, it could spark sectarian violence in other Middle Eastern countries.
Finally, if the regime does succeed in crushing this rebellion and restoring its own authority, it
will have provided the template for other regional leaders on how to deal with uprisings like this.

LEIGH SALES: Middle East correspondent Ben Knight.