- The Washington Times
Thursday, August 18, 2011

President Obama and other world leaders ramped up pressure Thursday on Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down, but the authoritarian regime responded by accusing the West of inciting more violence.

“It is strange that instead of offering [Damascus] a helping hand to implement its program of reforms, the West and Obama are seeking to stoke more violence in Syria,” Reem Haddad, the Syrian Information Ministry’s director of external relations, told Agence France-Presse.

After five months of crackdowns that human rights activists say have killed more than 2,200 in Syria, Mr. Obama finally called for Mr. Assad’s resignation Thursday and imposed new sanctions against the regime, including a freeze of all the country’s assets in the United States.

“For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside,” Mr. Obama said in a statement. “His calls for dialogue and reform have rung hollow while he is imprisoning, torturing and slaughtering his own people.”

In Europe, British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel issued their own statement, saying Mr. Assad, who succeeded his father as president in July 2000, should quit and announcing they were imposing new sanctions as well on Damascus.

“Our three countries believe that President Assad, who is resorting to brutal military force against his own people and who is responsible for the situation, has lost all legitimacy and can no longer claim to lead the country,” they said. “We call on him to face the reality of the complete rejection of his regime by the Syrian people and to step aside in the best interests of Syria and the unity of its people. Violence in Syria must stop now.”

Meanwhile, a team of U.N. investigators said that Syrian government forces may have committed crimes against humanity with their systematic slaying of protesters. The fact-finding mission cited murder, at least 353 summary executions, indiscriminate targeting of peaceful demonstrators using snipers and helicopters, torture, and unlawful arrests and detentions.

The report says up to 1,900 civilians have been killed in Syria since the uprising began in March. Activists said security forces fatally shot another civilian Thursday in the central city of Homs.

As the pro-democratic “Arab spring” uprisings have spread throughout North Africa and the Middle East, Mr. Obama has spoken out forcefully against strongman leaders such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Libya’s Col. Moammar Gadhafi. But critics say he has been slow to take the same forceful posture against Mr. Assad, despite the Syrian government’s clear acts of brutality.

As the killings mounted, the White House has issued a series of statements calling on Mr. Assad to “lead or get out of the way.” The administration also has imposed sanctions, including penalties on senior members of Mr. Assad’s inner circle.

“It is clear that President Assad believes that he can silence the voices of his people by resorting to the repressive tactics of the past,” Mr. Obama said. “But he is wrong. It is time for the Syrian people to determine their own destiny, and we will continue to stand firmly on their side.”

Mr. Obama signed an executive order freezing Syrian assets and banning U.S. imports of petroleum products that originate in Syria. It prohibits people in the U.S. from operating or investing in Syria.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that “no outside power can or should impose” on Syria’s transition, a warning directed at Iran.

“We understand the strong desire of the Syrian people that no foreign country should intervene in their struggle, and we respect their wishes,” Mrs. Clinton said. “We will do our part to support their aspirations for a Syria that is democratic, just and inclusive. And we will stand up for their universal rights and dignity by pressuring the regime and Assad personally to get out of the way of this transition.”

On a visit to Israel, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican, echoed Mr. Obama’s call for Mr. Assad’s resignation.

“Under the Assad regime, Syria has been a proxy for Iran, a supporter of terror, and a threat to United States’ interests and our allies in the region,” Mr. Cantor said. “The recent atrocities and Assad’s brutalization of his own people in Syria are extremely alarming and reflect a long history of anti-American hostility, and I join President Obama in calling for Mr. Assad’s resignation.”

A senior Obama administration official, speaking to reporters on background, said the U.S. government has held “literally hundreds” of meetings on Syria with diplomats and other foreign officials seeking to coordinate a chorus of condemnation of Mr. Assad.

Mr. Obama spoke again in early August with Mr. Sarkozy, Mr. Cameron and Mrs. Merkel about the need for unified action.

• Dave Boyer can be reached at dboyer@washingtontimes.com.

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