“The future of Syria must be determined by its people, but President Bashar al-Assad is standing in their way,” Obama said in a written statement. “For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.”
In Syria, Assad showed no indication that he was heeding the growing pressure on Friday, the day that the biggest anti-government protests typically occur following midday Muslim prayers. Nor was there any apparent move to make good on his assurance on Wednesday to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon that military operations were over.
Troops opened fire on protesters spilling out of mosques in several locations around the country, killing 12, according to the Local Coordination Committees, a group that monitors and supports protests.
Inevitably, with troops and security forces deployed in strength in most parts of the country, the protests were smaller than those of some previous weeks. But activists said they were nonetheless buoyed by Obama’s call on Assad to step down.
Obama’s first explicit call for Assad to resign — something critics have pressured him to do — culminated months of calibrated diplomacy that has included three rounds of sanctions and a gradual policy shift toward regime change in a nation long at odds with U.S. policy in the Middle East.
The president made his announcement hours before leaving on a 10-day vacation at Martha’s Vineyard, where he has little contact with journalists, and as Assad presses ahead with a broad military campaign that has killed hundreds of Syrian civilians. The crackdown is one of the most brutal government responses to protests during the tumultuous Arab Spring.
As Obama issued his statement, the leaders of France, Germany and Britain joined him in calling on Assad “to face the reality of the complete rejection of his regime by the Syrian people and to step aside.”
Obama had spoken to French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron over the past two weeks to discuss calling for Assad’s resignation and to coordinate steps on sanctions.
Many of Obama’s critics, including Senate hawks and human rights groups, questioned his reluctance to call for Assad’s ouster, a move opposed until recently by key regional U.S. allies such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia. The critics have compared it unfavorably to Obama’s more rapid decision to end support for now-ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, a longtime U.S. ally.
Human rights advocates estimate that more than 2,000 Syrian civilians have been killed in the Assad government’s five-month-old crackdown, which has spread from restive border areas in the south to many of the country’s major cities.