Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Thursday accused the Syrian government of killing more than 2,000 of its own citizens during its ongoing brutal crackdown against opposition protesters as the Obama administration moved to further isolate President Bashar Assad and his inner circle.
The administration is unhappy with Assad's actions in trying to quell the five-month-old uprising.
"We think, to date, the government is responsible for the deaths of more than 2,000 people of all ages," Clinton said, repeating the administration's position that "Assad has lost his legitimacy to govern the Syrian people."
She said the U.S. would "continue to support the Syrians themselves in their efforts to begin a peaceful and orderly transition to democracy" and renewed calls for the international community to unify behind steps to isolate Assad and his regime.
Clinton's comments, made at a news conference with visiting Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird, came just hours after White House press secretary Jay Carney said Assad is "on his way out" and the administration hit a prominent pro-regime businessman and his firm with sanctions.
"The actions that he has taken ... are reprehensible and appalling," Carney told reporters. "And we believe that country will be better off without him."
Earlier, the Treasury Department announced that it had slapped sanctions on Assad family confidante Muhammad Hamsho and his firm, Hamsho International Group, that freeze any assets they may have in U.S. jurisdictions and bar Americans from doing business with them.
The penalties did not target Syria's energy sector, something administration officials had repeatedly suggested was coming. Officials said those sanctions, which are expected to hit state-owned and state-affiliated oil and gas companies that are a leading revenue source for the government, are still in the works and could be unveiled in coming days.
Treasury Undersecretary David S. Cohen said Hamsho, who is also a member of Syria's parliament, had become wealthy through his connections to Assad and his brother, Mahir, and other members of the regime who have ordered the crackdown on the five-month-old uprising.
"Muhammad Hamsho earned his fortune through his connections to regime insiders, and during the current unrest, he has cast his lot with Bashar al-Asad, Mahir al-Asad and others responsible for the Syrian government's violence and intimidation against the Syrian people," Cohen said. "The sanctions we are applying today to Hamsho and his company are the direct consequence of his actions."
Hamsho's holding company has about 20 subsidiaries ranging from construction, civil engineering, telecommunications and hotels to carpets sales, horse trading and ice cream production.
In a statement, Treasury took several other shots at Hamsho, saying his commercial success was due to his regime connections "rather than his business acumen" and that he had "paid large sums of money to secure his seat" in parliament.
In May, the administration imposed sanctions on Assad and several senior Syrian officials to protest the deadly violence being used to quell demonstrations. But calls for additional steps have been growing since Sunday when the regime ordered troops into the restive city of Hama, where they have shelled buildings and shot indiscriminately at residents.
Rights groups say more than 100 people have been killed since the siege of Hama started on the eve of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
The European Union imposed additional sanctions on Syria this week and on Wednesday, the U.N. Security Council condemned the violence. On Capitol Hill, lawmakers have been demanding that the administration broaden its approach by slapping penalties on more regime members and target the energy sector.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Thursday's announcement should not be seen as a one-time-only action and that further steps are coming.
"We're looking at ways to increase both political and financial pressure on Assad, and look at ways to put a squeeze on them, on his regime if you will, to constrain their revenue and to make it harder for them to carry out these kind of assaults," he told reporters. "What's important is that we continue to build the pressure."
Toner also said U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford was leaving on Thursday to return to Damascus. Ford had been in Washington since Sunday for consultations and to testify before Congress. Some lawmakers had urged the administration to recall Ford permanently as a further show of displeasure with the Assad regime. Italy this week recalled its ambassador and urged others to do the same. But Toner said the administration believes Ford should return.
"It's very important for him to get back on the ground where he can go back to his vital work to outreach to the Syrian opposition, as well as continue to press our concerns with the Syrian government," he said.