Step down now, West tells Assad

Barack Obama, the US president, leads a coordinated diplomatic assault in which western leaders called on the Syrian president Bashar Al Assad to step aside immediately.

WASHINGTON // Barack Obama led a coordinated diplomatic assault yesterday in which a chorus of western leaders called on the Syrian president Bashar Al Assad to step aside immediately.

Washington also announced a new package of tough sanctions aimed at the entire Syrian regime.

The US president said the crackdown on anti-government protesters made Mr Al Assad unfit to lead, and for the first time called directly for him to resign.

The condemnation of Mr Al Assad was coordinated by the United States with the United Nations and US allies in Europe and the Middle East. The European Union issued an identical call shortly afterwards, and statements followed quickly from the leaders of France, Britain, Germany, Canada and others.

Earlier, UN rights investigators said Syria's crackdown "may amount to crimes against humanity" and should be referred to the International Criminal Court.

In his written statement, Mr Obama denounced Syrian government "brutality" and said Mr Al Assad had proven himself unwilling or unable to implement democratic reforms.

"His calls for dialogue and reform have rung hollow while he is imprisoning, torturing, and slaughtering his own people," Mr Obama said. "We have consistently said that President Assad must lead a democratic transition or get out of the way. He has not led. For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside."

Mr Obama said the US had been inspired by the Syrian people's pursuit of a peaceful transition to democracy, and Mr Al Assad was an obstacle to his own people's desire to determine their own future.

The EU followed suit hours later. Catherine Ashton, the EU's foreign policy chief, said Mr Al Assad had lost all legitimacy and had to step aside.

Ms Ashton said the EU "condemns in the strongest terms the brutal campaign Bashar Assad and his regime are waging against their own people. These developments are unacceptable and intolerable."

The leaders of France, Germany and the UK yesterday all announced their desire to see Mr Al Assad resign.

The White House also issued an executive order that freezes all Syrian government assets in the US and prohibits US citizens from investing in or exporting services to Syria. It also bans all US transactions involving Syrian-origin petroleum or petroleum products.

The sanctions "further tighten the circle of isolation" and "strike at the heart of the regime", said Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state.

Western governments have been criticised by human-rights groups for not having called on Mr Al Assad to step aside sooner.

Andrew Tabler, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said a certain amount of diplomatic ground needed to be covered first, particularly in ensuring that any effective ramping up of sanctions would have European support.

Most of Syria's crude oil exports go to Europe, in particular Germany, France and Italy. "The White House has been there for a while, but it needed to line up the ducks first," said Mr Tabler.

The emerging international consensus was crucial if the calls on Mr Al Assad to step aside were going to make a difference.

Only a broad international coalition can ensure that sanctions have real bite, said Mr Tabler, while Mr Obama's statement should dispel any notion that the US somehow saw the survival of the Assad regime as a US interest.

The crucial element now is targeting the Syrian energy sector, said Mr Tabler.

"No amount of carefully crafted statements are going to get Assad out of power."

The US had already targeted more than 30 Syrian regime officials, including Mr Al Assad himself and members of his inner circle, and companies, with sanctions. It has also lobbied other nations to take similar steps, something Mrs Clinton predicted would come soon.

"It is time for Assad to get out of the way," she said. As Syrian protesters have called for an end to his regime, Mr Al Assad has sent tanks and ground troops to retake control in rebellious areas.

The military assault has escalated dramatically since the start of Ramadan, with Syrian forces killing hundreds and detaining thousands. Until yesterday, the US administration had said Mr Assad had lost his legitimacy and that Syria would be better off without him, but it had stopped short of demanding his departure.

Officials said the administration had waited to rally an international consensus behind the call. Ms Clinton on Tuesday had publicly questioned the effectiveness of the United States acting alone.

Since then, however, the coordination strategy appears to have borne fruit. Earlier yesterday, a high-level UN human-rights team in Geneva said Syria's crackdown "may amount to crimes against humanity" and should be referred to the International Criminal Court. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay was expected to urge the UN Security Council to make that referral.

* With additional reporting by Associated Press

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