In his first explicit demand, President Obama called on Syrian President Bashar Assad to leave power. The White House issued a written statement praising the protesters' "pursuit of a peaceful transition" and "strongly condemning" the Syrian regime's "brutality."
"The future of Syria must be determined by its people," the president said in a statement. "But President Bashar al-Assad is standing in their way. His calls for dialogue and reform have rung hollow while he is imprisoning, torturing, and slaughtering his own people. 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."
The call comes after five months of protests in the country and increasingly violent crackdowns from Syrian security forces. Just yesterday, reported Bloomberg, the Syrian government killed at least 25 protesters.
The White House also announced a series of what it called "unprecedented sanctions." The president said he issued an executive order that freezes all Syrian assets under U.S. jurisdiction and prohibits any U.S. person from dealing with the government of Syria. That ban extends to U.S. import of Syrian oil.
The president's statement comes hours before the United Nations Security Council is scheduled to meet to discuss the situation in the country. Bloomberg adds:
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay is ready to tell the Security Council today that there is evidence the government's deadly suppression of dissent has violated international law, according to a UN diplomat briefed on the findings who wasn't authorized to discuss them publicly. The UN has withdrawn non-essential staff from Syria, the office of its Special Coordinator for Lebanon said yesterday.
The UN report, amid growing international outrage, may add momentum to a European-led push to overcome Russian resistance to firmer UN action against Assad. Faced with the most serious threat to his family's 40-year rule, he has deployed tanks, armored vehicles, artillery and helicopters to crush the uprising that began after revolts ousted the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt, and sparked a conflict in Libya.
"We recognize that it will take time for the Syrian people to achieve the justice they deserve," Obama said. "There will be more struggle and sacrifice. It is clear that President Assad believes that he can silence the voices of his people by resorting to the repressive tactics of the past. But he is wrong. As we have learned these last several months, sometimes the way things have been is not the way that they will be. It is time for the Syrian people to determine their own destiny, and we will continue to stand firmly on their side."
Secretary of State Hilary Clinton is scheduled to speak at 10 a.m. ET. We'll cover it here.
Update at 10:05 a.m. ET. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton:
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton echoed what the president said in his statement. She said the Syrian people deserve a government that "respects their dignity." And President Assad is "standing in their way."
"The time has come for him to step aside," said Clinton.
Clinton also said that the U.S. would take steps to "mitigate" unintended consequences the new sanctions might have on the Syrian people.
Update at 11:49 a.m. ET. Europe Calls For Assad To Step Aside:
The United States was joined by Europe in its call for Assad to step down. The AP reports:
European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said in a statement Thursday that "the EU notes the complete loss of Bashar al-Assad's legitimacy in the eyes of the Syrian people and the necessity for him to step aside."
At the same time, British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel issued a joint statement saying that Assad should "leave power in the greater interests of Syria and the unity of his people."