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US, EU Tighten Syria Sanctions as Death Toll Mounts

A pro-Syrian regime protester flashes V-victory sign during a protest against the Arab League sanctions, in Damascus, Syria, Nov. 28, 2011.

A pro-Syrian regime protester flashes V-victory sign during a protest against the Arab League sanctions, in Damascus, Syria, Nov. 28, 2011.

The United States and the European Union tightened sanctions on Syria Thursday as the United Nations said the death toll in the Damascus government’s crackdown on protestors now exceeds 4,000. A top State Department official said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s departure is inevitable.

The Obama administration has added two close associates of the Syrian leader and two companies with ties to the government to a U.S. economic blacklist aimed at hastening the departure of President Assad.

The Treasury Department identified the Syrians as Muhammad Makhluf, an uncle and financial enabler to the president and his family, and General Aus Aslan, a commander of the Syrian army’s 4th Armored Division, identified as a “key regime-protection unit.”

The entities cited were the Syrian Real Estate Bank, the second largest bank in the country, and the Military Housing Establishment, a company controlled by the defense ministry said to provide funding to the regime.

They join a long list of Syrian firms and individuals barred from access to the U.S. financial system and facing the seizure of any U.S.-based assets.

The U.S. move came as the European Union extended its own Syria sanctions list, adding 12 individuals and 11 companies.

In a written statement, President Barack Obama welcomed the EU announcement, which also included new sanctions against Iran, as a signal of the world community’s resolve to address what he termed “the assault on the fundamental rights of the Syrian people.”

At a Senate committee hearing on Iran sanctions, Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman said the downfall of President Assad, a critical ally of Tehran, is just a matter of time.

“The international environment is changing on a daily basis. And probably one of the most significant things that will happen sometime in the near future is a change in Syria. Iran really has only two allies left, Syria and Hezbollah. And when indeed Basher al-Assad steps aside, which he most undoubtedly will do, it’s just a matter of when, not if, Iran will lose one of its last proxies in the world," she said.

In Geneva, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said the cumulative death toll in Syria is at least 4,000. She said the situation, with military defectors from the self-described “Free Syrian Army” claiming attacks on government targets, can now be characterized as a civil war.

At the State Department, Deputy Spokesman Mark Toner said the United States is reluctant to describe the situation as civil warfare since the “overwhelming” share of the violence has come from pro-regime forces.

He said Assad government tactics are taking Syria “down a very dangerous path” but that the United States counsels non-violence by its opponents.

“We have been very clear in saying that we believe the opposition needs to remain peaceful. We’ve also been clear in saying that it is Assad’s reaction to these peaceful protests that has led us to, on the part of some, the Free Syrian Army, this violent reaction to the ongoing onslaughts from the Syrian regime," he said.

Toner said the Obama administration still intends to send U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford back to his post in the near future, when his safety can be assured. The outspoken U.S. envoy, withdrawn in October, drew the wrath of the Damascus government for his outreach to opposition figures.

Toner said it is important for the United States to have a credible, senior-level observer on the ground in Syria to “bear witness” to what is happening there.