Syrian ministers face Arab travel ban

AP News
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Posted: Nov 30, 2011 1:55 PM
Syrian ministers face Arab travel ban

The Arab League unveiled a list of top Syrian officials facing a travel ban Wednesday, and Turkey imposed tough new sanctions against Damascus as pressure intensified for President Bashar Assad to end his regime's violent effort to suppress an 8-month-old uprising.

The 17 officials who could be banned from traveling to other Arab countries include the defense and interior ministers, along with close members of Assad's inner circle. Assad's millionaire cousin, Rami Makhlouf, who has controlled the mobile phone network and other lucrative enterprises in Syria, and the president's younger brother Maher, who is believed to be in command of much of the crackdown, also were on the list.

Despite the diplomatic squeeze, Syrian forces reportedly besieged several areas as the revolt against him showed no sign of slowing down. Activists said more than a dozen people were killed Wednesday, although the figure was impossible to confirm independently.

Syria has largely sealed off the country as its forces try to crush a remarkably resilient uprising against Assad's autocratic rule. The United Nations says at least 3,500 people have been killed since the crackdown began in March.

"Every bullet fired, every bombed mosque has eliminated the legitimacy of the Syrian leadership and has widened the gap between us," Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said at a news conference in Ankara, Turkey, in announcing the new sanctions. "Syria has squandered the last chance that it was given."

Turkey's move comes on top of sanctions already imposed by the Arab League, the United States and the European Union _ punishing an already wobbling economy. Turkey and Syria did $2.4 billion in trade last year, according to the Turkish Embassy in Damascus.

The sanctions will hurt the regime and chip away at Syria's business classes _ a dangerous development for Assad. Syrian business leaders have long traded political freedoms for economic privileges in Syria, where the prosperous merchant classes are key to propping up the regime.

"The government's economic maladies will spark more defections from the armed forces and weaken Assad's support among the monied class, which will be pushing for the government to negotiate a power transfer," sanctions expert George A. Lopez of the University of Notre Dame's Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies said in a statement.

He said the sanctions could bring down the regime in six to nine months by dramatically limiting Assad's access to cash and further limiting the revenues of the business elite.

The opposition has tried to rally the largely silent, but hugely important, business elite. But Assad's opponents have failed so far to galvanize support in Damascus and Aleppo _ the two economic centers in Syria.

The sanctions, however, could weaken their resolve.

Davutoglu also said Wednesday that Turkey was imposing a travel ban and freezing the assets of "certain officials who are members of the main cadre of leaders, who are the subject of claims of exerting violence against the people or of resorting to illegitimate means."

"All shipment of arms and military equipment through Turkey's land, airspace and seas ... will be prevented," he said.

He said Ankara was suspending all ties to the Syrian Central Bank, freezing any Syrian government assets in Turkey and suspending any loan deals. Future dealing with the Syrian Trade Bank would be suspended, while current deals would continue, Davutoglu said.

He also announced the suspension of a joint economic and political cooperation council between the two countries "until a legitimate leadership that is in peace with its people comes to power in Syria."

The 17 high-level Syrian officials facing an Arab League travel ban also includes a number of officials in the state security service, including Maj. Gen. Assef Shawkat, the deputy chief of staff for security affairs who is married to Assad's sister, Bushra.

The travel ban is part of an unprecedented series of sanctions announced by the 22-nation bloc on Sunday.

Many of the sanctions went into effect immediately, including cutting off transactions with the Syrian central bank, halting Arab government funding for projects in Syria and freezing government assets.

But other steps _ including the travel ban _ still need be reviewed by a technical committee Saturday in Doha, Qatar.

Activists reported violence Wednesday in several areas, including Idlib province, which borders Turkey, and the southern Daraa province. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Wednesday dozens of tanks and armored personnel carriers stormed the village of Dael in Daraa province early in the morning amid heavy gunfire.

All communications with the village were cut at dawn, including mobile, land lines as well as electricity, the observatory said.

Another activist coalition, called the Local Coordination Committees, also reported explosions and deployment of military in Dael and said communications had been cut.

Syria has banned most foreign journalists and prevented independent reporting, making witness accounts and details gathered by activist groups a channel of information.

Assad has tried to contain the uprising in part by promising reform, but the opposition has largely brushed them off as too little, too late.

On Wednesday, state-run TV announced that more than 900 detainees involved in the uprising were released from prison in an act of amnesty.

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Associated Press writers Elizabeth A. Kennedy in Beirut and Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, contributed to this report.