U.S. Calls On Syria's President To Step Down

The U.S. calls on Syria's president to step down and announces new sanctions on the Damascus government. Washington's move was followed by similar action from the European Union.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host: And I'm Melissa Block. Today, President Obama and some of his European counterparts issued statements that Syrian dissidents have been waiting to hear for months: that it is time for President Bashar al-Assad to step aside. And to make sure of it, the Obama administration is piling on new sanctions, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: In his written statement, President Obama condemns what he calls the Syrian government's disgraceful attacks on its citizens, as well as the arrests of opposition figures and reports of torture. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says she helped line up pressure from others to drive this point home.

Secretary HILLARY CLINTON: The people of Syria deserve a government that respects their dignity, protects their rights and lives up to their aspirations. 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.

KELEMEN: The European Union, the governments of France, Britain and Germany all released similar statements. Clinton was careful, though, not to raise expectations that the U.S. or others are planning to back up this tough talk with military action.

CLINTON: We understand the strong desire of the Syrian people that no foreign country should intervene in their struggle, and we respect their wishes.

KELEMEN: Instead, the U.S. is trying to put a financial squeeze on the Syrian government. Americans are now barred from investing in Syria or buying Syrian petroleum products. The Obama administration has also seized the assets and property of the Syrian government under U.S. jurisdiction. These steps were welcomed by Syrian human rights activists, including Radwan Ziadeh, who runs the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies.

RADWAN ZIADEH: This will put more pressure on the regime, will encourage more protesters on the ground, will send the right message to the senior generals in the army to break away from the regime and to support the protesters.

KELEMEN: And that's precisely what the State Department says it wants to do since the U.S. has concluded that Assad is on his way out. Andrew Tabler, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says he would have preferred the U.S. to have spoken out sooner.

ANDREW TABLER WASHINGTON INSTITUTE FOR NEAR EAST POLICY: But on the other hand, by waiting, it has got everyone on the same diplomatic page, and that's very important. Now, the important part will be getting the regional allies on the same page.

KELEMEN: Tabler thinks regional allies are also leaning toward a tougher line in part because of the broken promises from Assad. As recently as yesterday, Assad told the U.N. secretary-general that military operations are over. The Syrians made similar pledges to Turkey's foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, but Tabler says it's getting harder for anyone to believe what the Syrian leader says.

POLICY: Over the last week after Ahmet Davutoglu's visit, the Syrian navy bombarded Latakia and even hit a Palestinian camp causing the PLO to come out and accuse the regime of war crimes and working against the Palestinian cause. Crackdowns continue elsewhere in the country. There were protests in Aleppo last night. Protesters continue to die. President Assad can say that military operations have stopped, but in fact, they have not.

KELEMEN: U.N. human rights officials are calling for a formal inquiry, and Arab states on the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva have joined the push to have a special session on Syria Monday. Activist Radwan Ziadeh will be there, calling on countries to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court.

ZIADEH: Bashar Assad has to go to The Hague, and the Syrian people will determine the next president of Syria.

KELEMEN: And he thinks Arab states are coming around to that view. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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