It's time for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to go, President Obama and other world leaders declared today. After months of condemning the Syrian regime's violent and deadly attacks against its own people, the Obama administration, as part of an international coalition, increased pressure by explicitly calling for Assad to step aside. "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," Obama said in a statement released Thursday morning.
In his statement, Obama repeated what members of the administration have said since the start of the Arab Spring uprisings earlier this year: that the future of Syria is up to its own people. The administration has argued that unlike with the opposition to ruler Muammar Qadhafi in Libya, the Syrian people have had "a strong desire" that foreign nations like the United States not intervene. "The United States cannot and will not impose this transition upon Syria. It is up to the Syrian people to choose their own leaders," Obama said. "What the United States will support is an effort to bring about a Syria that is democratic, just, and inclusive for all Syrians. We will support this outcome by pressuring President Assad to get out of the way of this transition, and standing up for the universal rights of the Syrian people along with others in the international community."
Senior administration officials, on a call with reporters Thursday, said the administration is "certain that Assad is on his way out," in part due to the increasing strength of the Syrian people. "They're not afraid anymore, and that's when regimes start to crumble," a top administration official said.
"The balance has shifted within Syria. The Syrian people will not accept his rule anymore," said another official.
In addition to sanctions already imposed upon Assad and members of his regime since mid-March when the crackdown against protesters began, Obama also on Thursday issued an executive order to block property of the Syrian government, to ban American citizens from investing in or exporting services to Syria, and to ban imports of, or any transaction related to, Syrian petroleum. The administration says these are the toughest sanctions issued yet against Syria, and perhaps against any country.
Thursday's rhetorical move by the Obama administration is significant since, along with the stronger sanctions, it's considered one of the only options left for the United States to put pressure on the Assad regime to end his brutal crackdowns against the Syrian people. Syrian-American activists and human-rights groups have long been pushing Obama to call for Assad to step down, but before Thursday, the administration went only so far as to condemn the violence and state that Assad has "lost his legitimacy" as a leader.
Responding to heightened violence in recent weeks, there have also been a series of multilateral actions against the regime, including a statement issued August 3 by the UN Security Council that condemned human-rights violations in Syria and called for "an immediate end to all violence." Regional powers including Turkey and Saudi Arabia have also pressured Syria's government amid reports of heightened state-orchestrated violence in recent weeks. Regional groups like the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Arab League have also spoken out against Assad.
Obama's statement Thursday comes alongside similar declarations from the leaders of France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Canada, to name a few. U.S. administration officials say that they expect other international powers to impose stricter financial sanctions on Syria as well, in order to further isolate Assad's regime.
According to media reports on Wednesday, Assad told United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon that the crackdowns by his regime had stopped. Nevertheless, according to administration officials, there could be struggles ahead for the Syrian people before Assad forfeits his power.