WASHINGTON, (Reuters) – The United States for the first time explicitly called on Thursday for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down because of his brutal crackdown on five months of protests against his authoritarian rule.
President Barack Obama also imposed fresh American sanctions to freeze Syrian government assets under U.S. jurisdiction and to bar U.S. individuals or companies from transactions with Assad’s government.
The moves are intended to ratchet up pressure on Assad, who has used his military and security forces to attack protesters seeking an end to the 41-year reign by the Syrian president and his late father, Hafez al-Assad.
Analysts said the U.S. sanctions are likely to have limited impact because of the low level of U.S.-Syrian trade and the minimal U.S. imports of Syrian oil but would likely be followed by European nations with greater economic leverage.
“His calls for dialogue and reform have rung hollow while he is imprisoning, torturing, and slaughtering his own people,” Obama said of Assad in a statement announcing the sanctions.
“For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside,” he added.
While the United States has previously called for Assad to embark on democratic reforms or to get out of the way, Obama’s statement marks the first unambiguous demand for him to go.
Obama’s decision to take a harder stance toward Assad appears to reflect a U.S. conclusion that he is incapable of reform as well as growing condemnation of the Syrian leader, including from influential Arab nations such as Saudi Arabia.
Assad told U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that military and police operations against pro-democracy protesters have stopped, but activists and residents reported more killing overnight and more shooting on Thursday.
Separately, U.N. human rights investigators said Assad’s forces had carried out systematic attacks on civilians, often firing at short range and without warning, killing at least 1,900 civilians, including children.
A U.S. official all but ruled out using military action to force Assad out. The United States is trying to push two other Arab leaders from power: Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, where NATO is employing airstrikes that benefit anti-Gaddafi rebels, and Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen, where Washington is relying on diplomacy.
‘AN INDUCED POLITICAL COMA’
U.S. officials told reporters that they were confident the balance had shifted in Syria, that the Syrian people were no longer afraid of Assad and would no longer tolerate his rule.
“Syria is a country that is only now emerging from what in effect has been 40 years of an induced political coma,” said one official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We can’t predict how long this transition will take. Nothing about it is likely to be easy but we are certain that Assad is on the way out.”
The U.S. sanctions and demand for Assad’s exit were followed by a call from Britain, France and Germany — three of the European Union’s leading powers — for Assad to go.
The new U.S. sanctions immediately freeze all Syrian government assets subject to U.S. jurisdiction and prohibit any transactions involving the Assad government.
They also ban U.S. imports of Syrian petroleum or petroleum products — a tiny fraction of U.S. oil imports — and prohibit U.S. citizens from operating or investing in Syria.
The United States has already imposed several rounds of sanctions on Assad and other Syrian officials and financial institutions but these are believed to have had little impact given the limited nature of U.S.-Syrian dealings.
According to U.S. government figures, in 2010 the United States imported an average of just 9,000 barrels per day of oil from Syria, a tiny fraction of the U.S. average consumption of 19.18 million barrels per day.
“What was announced today will have a very limited impact as it doesn’t really prevent anyone from outside the U.S. dealing with Syrian oil,” said Greg Priddy, global oil analyst at Eurasia Group in Washington.
“With 95 percent of Syrian oil exports going to the EU, you might see more action there,” he added.