CAIRO — President Barack Obama on Thursday issued his first explicit call for the ouster of Syrian President Bashar Assad and imposed the harshest sanctions yet on Assad's assets in hopes of choking off funding for a deadly crackdown against anti-government protesters.
Obama's statement that it was time for Assad to "step aside" was issued in concert with several European allies, who also demanded for the first time that the Syrian leader leave office over his regime's brutal response to a five-month-old popular uprising.
"The future of Syria must be determined by its people, but President Bashar al Assad is standing in their way," the president's statement said. "His calls for dialogue and reform have rung hollow while he is imprisoning, torturing and slaughtering his own people."
Similarly worded statements came from Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and the European Union.
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The tougher talk followed weeks of reluctance by the United States and European and Arab allies to call for Assad's resignation, apparently out of worry over who'd follow the Assad family after its four decades in power.
On Thursday, the White House left little room to question its stance: Obama signed an executive order to freeze all Syrian government assets within U.S. jurisdiction and banned American citizens everywhere from doing business with the regime. That degree of economic isolation puts Syria on par with pariah states such as North Korea and Myanmar.
Human rights activists put the death toll in Syria at around 2,000 since the unrest began as part of the springtime wave of Arab protests.
The pressure on Assad could increase even further if Europe — the recipient of the vast majority of Syria's oil and gas exports — follows suit in imposing harsh new petroleum sanctions. The Dow Jones Newswires reported that European ambassadors would consider such action in a meeting Friday.
Radwan Ziadeh, the director of the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies, praised Thursday's moves as a morale boost for protesters and a "significant step" for the White House. Still, he said by phone from Geneva, the EU could strike a far greater blow at Assad by announcing oil sanctions. Petroleum reportedly provides about 30 percent of the Syrian government's revenue.
Also Thursday, the U.N. human rights office in Geneva said the Assad regime might have committed crimes against humanity in its crackdown on protesters and recommended that the Security Council consider referring the case to the International Criminal Court. The U.N. said Assad told U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon by phone Thursday that the crackdown was over, but residents in the besieged port city of Latakia said government soldiers and tanks remained in the city and that deaths were reported Wednesday and Thursday in other cities, according to news reports.
There was no immediate official reaction from the Syrian government. The top story on the website for SANA, the state news agency, said Assad "indicated that reform in Syria stems from the conviction of Syrians and not a response to foreign pressure."
Experts were divided over the impact of Obama's announcement. Ed Husain, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, said Assad could use it to paint the protest movement as an extension of American influence.
"In a region where anti-Americanism runs high, (Assad) will be seen as a hero," Husain said.
Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert and fellow with the Washington Institute's Program on Arab Politics, argued that with so many Western leaders now calling for Assad's resignation, he'll have a difficult time convincing Syrians that he's the target of an American conspiracy.
"Concerted, multilateral pressure" worked with Assad before, Tabler said, and he predicted that the sanctions — particularly on petroleum products — would weaken the Syrian regime to the point of collapse, though not right away.
"This is a slow-motion train wreck," Tabler said. "It's not a building falling over."
Turkey, Syria's No. 1 trade partner and once-close ally, is a holdout on sanctions but is growing impatient with the bloodshed next door. It's caring for more than 7,000 Syrian refugees who crossed the border to flee the violence.
"Because of its diplomatic and economic ties, Turkey wants Syria to be as stable as possible," said Mensur Akgun, a professor on international relations at Istanbul Kultur University.
While Turkey would be very unlikely to intervene militarily, it could withdraw support for Assad, and it would be expected to go along with any additional sanctions that the U.N. Security Council imposed, Akgun said.
Even with the economic stranglehold, however, several obstacles remain in the way of Assad's departure. The influential business class has yet to abandon him. And so far, there's no wave of high-level defections from the military or government.
Most worrisome, analysts said, is Syria's touchy sectarian demographics and the lack of a cohesive opposition. Assad's abrupt removal could result in a protracted civil war and instability that could seep across borders and inflame tensions in Syria's strategically important neighbors: Israel, Iraq, Turkey and Lebanon.
If the sanctions don't yield the desired result, there's no talk of a military option, especially with the U.S. military struggling to exit Iraq and Afghanistan and the NATO-led campaign in Libya grinding on with Moammar Gadhafi defiantly remaining in power.
Senior U.S. officials said Thursday that opposition figures were making progress on forming a united front, and they stressed that regime change should come from an indigenous movement rather than foreign interference.
"I don't think anybody believes that (military intervention) is the desired course in Syria; not the United States and its allies, and not the Syrian people," said a senior U.S. official who spoke only on the standard condition of anonymity for such a sensitive topic.
(Sege reported from Washington. McClatchy special correspondent Ipek Yezdani contributed to this article from Istanbul.)
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