By Sam Youngman and Ian Swanson - 08/18/11 03:42 PM EDT
President Obama on Thursday for the first time called for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to leave office amid prolonged violence in that country.
The decision follows weeks of criticism from Republicans, and is coupled with a series of sanctions Obama said would help usher Assad from office that the president deemed “unprecedented.”
Obama has struggled with whether to make the public call for the Syrian leader to resign, as unimaginable violence has gripped that country. Earlier this summer, he passively suggested that Syria would be better off without Assad in power.
The issue was a delicate one because Obama and the United States do not want to be seen as the force pushing Assad out the door. U.S. officials fear that action could hurt forces inside Syria trying to get rid of Assad by allowing the Syrian president to say he is the victim of outside pressure.
Obama signaled these considerations in his statement.
“The United States cannot and will not impose this transition upon Syria,” he said. “It is up to the Syrian people to choose their own leaders, and we have heard their strong desire that there not be foreign intervention in their movement.”
Instead, Obama said, the United States 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.”
Some Republicans, including House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), issued statements joining Obama in calling for Assad’s resignation.
“Under the Assad regime, Syria has been a proxy for Iran, a supporter of terror and a threat to United States interests and our allies in the region,” Cantor said. “The recent atrocities and Assad’s brutalization of his own people in Syria are extremely alarming and reflect a long history of anti-American hostility, and I join President Obama in calling for Mr. Assad’s resignation.”
But former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the nominal front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination, criticized Obama for taking too long to call for Assad’s resignation.
“It has taken President Obama far too long to speak out forcefully against Assad and his vicious crackdown in Syria,” Romney said in a statement.
“In the early stages of this crisis, the Obama administration referred to Assad as a ‘reformer,’ which had the effect of emboldening Assad and discouraging the dissidents. America must show leadership on the world stage and work to move these developing nations toward modernity. This means using the bullhorn of the presidency and not remaining silent for too long while voices of freedom and dissent are under attack.”
Senior administration officials defended the administration’s actions on Syria to reporters.
They described a president who has for the past several weeks worked to tighten international pressure on the Syrian leader through a series of calls to foreign leaders.
They noted an Aug. 5 conversation Obama held with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy in which the three leaders discussed the need to ask Assad explicitly to leave office. During an Aug. 13 discussion with British Prime Minister David Cameron, Obama also talked of the need for more forceful actions with Syria, the officials said.
On Thursday, they emphasized that the pressure on Syria — reflected in statements from a range of countries —showed the “completely united front” Obama has built with other leaders.
Obama also held calls with the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Turkey as he contemplated what course of action to take as violence continued unabated.
The phone calls to the leaders of those countries resulted in strong statements from those nations in the past week against Syria’s regime.
“The Assad government has now been condemned by countries in all parts of the globe, and can look only to Iran for support for its brutal and unjust crackdown,” Obama said Thursday.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the United Nations Security Council will meet Thursday to discuss the situation in Syria.
She said the United States also was working to set up a special session of the United Nations Human Rights Council.
“The people of Syria deserve a government that protects their rights and lives up to their aspirations,” Clinton said in prepared remarks to reporters broadcast on cable news. “The time has come for Assad to step aside.”
Obama also announced a new executive order that imposes even tougher sanctions on Syria, which has already been sanctioned by the United States and other countries.
Obama said the new executive order would freeze all assets of Syria’s government that are subject to U.S. jurisdiction, and would prohibit any engagement by U.S. citizens in transactions involving Syria’s government.
It will also ban U.S imports of Syrian-origin petroleum or petroleum products and prohibit Americans from having any dealings related to Syria’s petroleum industry or operating or investing in Syria.
Obama said the United States expects the sanctions to be echoed by other parties.
The president sought to align the United States with protesters demonstrating against the Syrian government. He said the United States had been inspired by Syrians repeatedly taking to the streets despite violent reprisals by government police and security forces.
“These violations of the universal rights of the Syrian people have revealed to Syria, the region and the world the Assad government’s flagrant disrespect for the dignity of the Syrian people,” Obama said.
The United States is supporting NATO military action against Moammar Gadhafi’s regime in Libya, but administration officials downplayed the idea of military force against Syria.
“I don’t think anybody believes that is the desired course,” one official told reporters.
This story was posted at 9:40 a.m. and last updated at 11:42 a.m.