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Obama to pressure Assad, offer aid to Egypt

President Barack Obama will use a sweeping Middle East speech on Thursday to announce aid to countries that embrace reforms, hoping to steer a region roiling in violence toward democratic change that lasts.
Barack Obama
President Barack Obama speaks at a Democratic National Committee campaign fundraising event at the Boston Center for the Arts in Boston, on May 18.Charles Dharapak / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

President Barack Obama will use a sweeping Middle East speech on Thursday to sharply defend new sanctions on Syrian President Bashar Assad as the U.S. government toughened its message for the repressive leader: Embrace democracy or get out. In a primary thrust of his address, Obama will also announce aid to countries that embrace reforms, hoping to steer a region roiling in violence toward democratic change that lasts.

Collectively, Obama's economic proposals will account for much of what's new in an address that, by design, is intended to look back and let him put his imprint on the massive change across the Middle East and North Africa over the last six months. The gist of what Obama will argue is that the United States must help nations modernize their economies and give job opportunities to their young people so that democracy can take hold and thrive — the kind of regional stability that is deeply in the political interests of his government.

The president plans to forgive roughly $1 billion in debt owed by Egypt to free up money for job-creation efforts there. And he will reveal other steps to bolster loans, trade and international support in Egypt and in Tunisia, the two nations seen as models of hope in a time when protests elsewhere in that part of the world are being violently crushed.

Obama is also expected to recalibrate the U.S. position on the flailing Israeli-Palestinian peace process. He will warn both sides that they face greater risks by not coming together on a peace deal than by going their own ways. It is an effort in which he has sunk his own capital and will spend more before his heavy week of Mideast diplomacy ends.

Overall, Obama will try to convince American audiences that the fate of countries in the region is worth the money and attention of United States even during weak economic times at home. To his global audience, Obama wants to leave no doubt that the U.S. stands behind those seeking greater human rights even as it has had to defend its responses to crises.

Senior administration officials revealed details of the speech in advance only on condition of anonymity.

The president will speak Thursday morning at the State Department in Washington.

The White House on Wednesday announced the sanctions on Assad and six senior Syrian officials for human rights abuses over their brutal crackdown on anti-government protests.

It was the first time the government personally penalized the Syrian leader for the actions of his security forces. More than 850 people have died since the uprising began in March.

Obama, in an executive order, said the Syrian government leaders were being held to account for "attacks on protesters, arrests and harassment of protesters and political activists, and repression of democratic change."

The Obama administration had pinned hopes on Assad, seen until recent months as a pragmatist and potential reformer who could buck Iranian influence and help broker an eventual Arab peace deal with Israel. But U.S. officials said Assad's increasingly ruthless crackdown left them little choice but to abandon the effort to woo Assad, and to stop exempting him from the same sort of sanctions already applied to Libya's Moammar Gadhafi.

Obama has not called on Assad to step down. His government came close on Wednesday.

"It is up to Assad to lead a political transition or to leave," the State Department said in talking points prepared for the announcement of sanctions.

The sanctions will freeze any assets Assad and the six Syrian government officials have in U.S. jurisdiction and make it illegal for Americans to do business with them. The U.S. had imposed similar sanctions on two of Assad's relatives and another top Syrian official last month but had thus far refrained from going after Assad himself.

Treasury officials could give no estimate on how much in Assad's assets were located in the United States that would be frozen by the new sanctions order.

The U.S. move came as Assad said earlier Wednesday that his security forces had made mistakes and blamed poorly trained police at least in part for the crackdown. He claimed the country's crisis is drawing to a close even as forces unleashed tank shells on opponents.

Obama speech was expected to be roughly split into thirds: a review of the political changes across the region for better and worse, country by country; the economic aid package; and the push for better security in the region, which will include the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts.

It will all be presented in the context of a future with al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden gone.

The president's offering of economic help is intended to serve as an incentive for other peoples to keep pushing for democracy. Among the elements of his approach:

— The canceling of roughly $1 billion in debt for Egypt. The intention is that money freed up from that debt obligation would be swapped toward investments in priority sectors of the Egyptian economy, likely to focus on entrepreneurship and employment for younger people. Unemployment rates are soaring in Egypt and across the region.

— The guaranteeing of up to $1 billion in borrowing for Egypt through the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, a U.S. government institution that mobilizes private capital.

— Promises by the U.S. to launch a new trade partnership in the Middle East and North Africa and to prod world financial institutions to help Egypt and Tunisia more.


Associated Press writers Matthew Lee and Martin Crutsinger contributed to this report.