By David Gollust
The United States, acting in concert with major allies, has called for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down after he ignored international appeals to end a brutal five-month crackdown on protesters. The appeal for regime change is coupled with far-reaching U.S sanctions against the Damascus government.
The long-anticipated U.S. call for the departure of Assad came in a written statement by President Barack Obama, in which he also announced unprecedented sanctions against Syria that target its critical oil and gas industry.
Obama condemned what he termed “ferocious brutality” by the Syrian government, including what he termed “disgraceful” attacks on cities like Hama and Deir al-Zour.
He said Assad’s calls for dialogue and reform have “rung hollow” as he imprisoned, tortured and slaughtered his own people.
Support for Syria’s people
The president said the Syrian leader has not led the democratic transition sought by the world community and said for the sake of the Syrian people, “the time has come for President Assad to step aside.”
The President’s remarks were echoed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who in a televised statement said while no outside power can or should impose change in Syria, the country’s people should be able to choose their own leaders in a democratic system based on the rule of law.
“The people of Syria deserve a government that respects their dignity, protects their rights and lives up to their aspirations,” said Clinton. “Assad is standing in their way. For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for him to step aside and leave this transition to the Syrians themselves, and that is what we will continue to work to achieve.”
The Obama administration had been poised to make the outright call for regime change earlier this month, but is understood to have delayed action pending final reform appeals to Assad from Arab states and neighboring Turkey – calls that went unanswered.
New sanctions, regional support
Clinton said earlier this week a U.S. demand for Assad’s departure was less important than similar calls by regional powers like Turkey and Saudi Arabia. She stressed in her statement that Washington does not want to be seen as dictating Syrian affairs.
“We understand the strong desire of the Syrian people that no foreign country should intervene in their struggle, and we respect their wishes. At the same time, we will do our part to support their aspiration for a Syria that is democratic, just and inclusive,” said Clinton. “And we will stand up for their universal rights and dignity by pressing the regime and Assad personally to get out of the way of this transition.”
The new sanctions announced by Obama sharply expand punitive measures already targeted on the Syrian leader and his inner circle. An executive order by the president freezes all Syrian government assets subject to U.S. jurisdiction, and bars U.S. citizens from business dealings with the Damascus government.
The order also bans U.S. imports of Syrian petroleum products. If, as expected, the move is matched by key European allies, it will severely affect what has been the main support of the Syrian economy. Since the violence began in March, tourism and other non-oil income for the Damascus government has withered away.