Obama says Assad must go, orders new sanctions

AMMAN, (Reuters) – The United States and European  Union called on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down  yesterday and U.S. President Barack Obama accused him of  “torturing and slaughtering” his own people in what U.N.  officials said could be crimes against humanity.

It was a dramatic sharpening of international rhetoric —  major states had urged Assad to reform rather than resign.

But with no threat of Western military action like that  against Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, the five-month-old conflict  between Assad and his opponents seems likely to grind on in the  streets.

Barack Obama

Putting faith in sanctions rather than force, Obama ordered  Syrian government assets in the United States frozen, banned  U.S. citizens from operating in or investing in Syria and  prohibited U.S. imports of Syrian oil products.

Though U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Assad had  assured him on Wednesday that military operations were over,  activists said Syrian forces carried out further raids in Deir  al-Zor and surrounded a mosque in Latakia on Thursday.

“The future of Syria must be determined by its people, but  President Bashar al-Assad is standing in their way,” Obama  said. “His calls for dialogue and reform have rung hollow while  he is imprisoning, torturing and slaughtering his own people.”

In a coordinated move, European Union foreign policy chief  Catherine Ashton called on Assad to step aside and said the EU  was preparing to broaden sanctions against Syria.

At the United Nations, Britain, France, Portugal, Germany  and the United States said they would begin drafting a Security  Council sanctions resolution on Syria. “We believe that the  time has come for the council to take further action,”  Britain’s Deputy U.N. Ambassador Philip Parham told reporters.

Bashar al-Assad

U.N. human rights investigators said Assad’s forces had  carried out systematic attacks on civilians, often opening fire  at close range and without warning, and committing violations  that may amount to crimes against humanity.

A U.N. report issued in Geneva recounted complaints of  indiscriminate shooting and of wounded people being put to  death with knives or by being dumped in the refrigerated rooms  of hospital morgues.

 CRACKDOWN “CONTINUING” 

The Security Council should consider referring the  situation in Syria to the Hague-based International Criminal  Court, the investigators said, adding that they had evidence  against 50 suspects.

U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay conveyed that message  in a briefing to the council in New York later in the day. “I  … recommended referral” to the ICC, she told reporters.  Diplomats said they would study the recommendation.

In a telephone call with Assad on Wednesday U.N. Secretary  General Ban joined a chorus of condemnation, expressing alarm  at reports of widespread violations of human rights and  excessive use of force by security forces against civilians.

The Syrian Revolution Coordinating Union, an activists’  group, said security forces fired machineguns near a mosque in  Latakia which was surrounded by armoured vehicles.

It also said Assad’s forces killed at least one man when  they fired live ammunition to stop residents from marching  after Ramadan prayers in the Mureijeh neighbourhood of Homs,  165 kilometers (100 miles) north of the capital Damascus.

Separately, it said security forces shot dead a man it  identified as Ali al-Hussein and wounded six when they fired at  a sit-in in the town of al-Ruhaibeh northeast of Damascus.

In New York, Syria’s U.N. Ambassador Bashar Ja’afari  accused the United States and European powers of waging a  “diplomatic and humanitarian war” against Syria by imposing  sanctions and demanding that Assad quit.
Britain’s Parham told reporters the proposed U.N. sanctions  would include an arms embargo, asset freezes and travel bans.  But veto-holders Russia and China have so far opposed concrete  measures against Damascus.
 

SANCTIONS IMPACT      

Nadim Shehadi of London’s Chatham House think-tank said the  shift in tone from Washington and Europe was significant, since  it may encourage Syrians who saw previous calls for Assad to  reform as an indication of support for him.

“The previous messages from the West to Bashar al-Assad  were ambiguous,” Shehadi said. “Now the West has hit at the  very basis of the idea of his power, by telling him that we  don’t believe in you any more and you should leave.

Rosemary Hollis, Middle East politics lecturer at London’s  City University, said the move could “rattle the regime, they  will feel very isolated.”
It may take time, however, for the diplomatic broadside,  backed by sanctions, to have an impact on the 45-year-old  president who took power when his father President Hafez  al-Assad died 11 years ago after three decades in office.

He has so far brushed off international pressure and  survived years of U.S. and European isolation following the  2005 assassination of Lebanese statesman Rafik al-Hariri, a  killing many Western nations held Damascus responsible for.

Despite the escalating international rhetoric and Western  sanctions, no country is proposing to take the kind of military  action NATO forces launched in Libya to support rebels fighting  Gaddafi. That action has helped them take much of the country.     However, Syria’s economy, already hit by a collapse in  tourism revenue, could be further damaged by Obama’s  announcement. U.S. sanctions will make it very difficult for  banks to finance transactions involving Syrian oil exports.

It will also make it challenging for companies with a large  U.S. presence, such as Shell to continue producing crude in  Syria — although the impact on global oil markets from a  potential shutdown of Syria’s 380,000 barrels per day oil  industry would be relatively small compared to Libya.

Assad says the protests are a foreign conspiracy to divide  Syria and pledged last week his army would “not relent in  pursuing terrorist groups.”

 U.N. INVESTIGATION    
The U.N. investigators said Syrian forces had fired on  peaceful protesters throughout the country, often at short  range and without warning, killing at least 1,900 civilians,  including children. Their wounds were “consistent with an  apparent shoot-to-kill policy,” their report said.

“The mission found a pattern of human rights violations  that constitutes widespread or systematic attacks against the  civilian population, which may amount to crimes against  humanity,” it said.

There was a “clear pattern of snipers shooting at  demonstrators,” and in some cases targeting people trying to  evacuate the wounded. In hospitals “there were several reports  of security forces killing injured victims by putting them  alive in refrigerators in hospital morgues.”

The United Nations plans to send a team to Syria this  weekend to assess the humanitarian situation there, U.N.  humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said yesterday.

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