On a day when the Syrian regime continued its bloody crackdown on anti-government protests--a crackdown that the U.N. says may have killed as many as 850 people over two months--the U.S. has announced that it will impose sanctions on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for human rights abuses for the first time ever, in what news reports are characterizing as an effort to step up the pressure on the regime to renounce violence and institute democratic reforms. As Reuters explains, freezing Assad's assets and barring American individuals and companies from doing business with him, which the U.S. and E.U. have avoided in previous rounds of sanctions on top Syrian officials, "is a significant slap at Damascus and raises questions about whether Washington and the West may ultimately seek Assad's removal from power." That's true, Reuters says, even if the move is largely symbolic and Assad and the other officials targeted by this latest round of sanctions don't have significant assets in the U.S.

The U.S. action comes a day before Obama gives a major address on the uprisings in the Arab world in which he is expected to criticize brutal crackdowns on pro-democracy movements. The sanctions also come on the same day that Assad, according to the Syrian paper Al-Watan, admitted that Syrian authorities engaged in "wrong security practices" in responding to protests but added that Syria was poised to "overcome the crisis."