US and EU call for Syrian leader to go

19.08.11 @ 09:28

  1. By Andrew Rettman
  2. Andrew email

The White House and the EU have told Syrian President Bashar Assad he should give up power following a UN report chronicling eyewitness accounts of mass-scale murder and torture.

  • Hacker group Anonymous fiddled the homepage of the Syrian defence ministry earlier this month to post an anti-Assad statement (Photo: mod.gov.sy)

US President Barack Obama in a written statement on Thursday (18 August) said "For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside."

EU foreign relations chief Catherine Ashton in a communique endorsed by all 27 EU countries added shortly afterward: "The EU notes the complete loss of Bashar Assad's legitimacy in the eyes of the Syrian people and the necessity for him to step aside."

Europe's biggest foreign policy actors - France, Germany and the UK - highlighted the EU line in a separate statement. Poland, citing its role as the rotating EU presidency, followed suit.

Obama also issued an executive order seizing all Syrian state property on US territory and banning US citizens from conducting any form of business with Syria, including in the oil and gas sector.

He underlined that Libya-type military action is not an option, however. "The United States cannot and will not impose this transition upon Syria ... We have heard [the Syrian opposition's] strong desire that there not be foreign intervention in their movement," he noted.

With the vast majority of Syrian oil and gas exports handled by British, Dutch and French companies, EU diplomats will in Brussels on Friday discuss potential economic sanctions.

But with the UK saying an oil ban would hurt ordinary Syrians, any decision may be delayed until an EU foreign ministers' meeting in September, causing frustration in some circles. "The United States is hitting hard while the EU waits and mulls over what further steps to take. This is utterly unacceptable," the leader of the Liberal group in the EU parliament, Guy Verhoftsadt, said.

For his part, the British deputy UN ambassador, Philip Parham, noted that UN Security Council members France, Germany, Portugal, the UK and the US are also drafting a resolution calling for UN-level sanctions.

The escalation in international pressure comes after Turkey failed to persuade Assad to halt violence earlier this week.

It also comes after a report by the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on Thursday chronicled eyewitness reports of atrocities by Syrian security forces - including firing on crowds by helicopter gunships, tanks and snipers and killings of hospital patients and children by knife-wielding militia.

"Between 20 and 25 demonstrators reportedly bled to death in the Um al-Hassan garden area as no one could reach them," it said in an account of one incident. "After the shooting stopped, garbage trucks were brought in by the security forces to pick up bodies off the streets," it added on a separate incident.

The UN fact-finding mission interviewed 180 refugees in neighbouring countries and relied on open source material, such as videos emailed out of Syria, because it was not allowed to enter the country.

It specifically rejected claims by the Syrian government and some independent observers that Sunni Muslim radicals have caused heavy casualties among Assad forces.

"Reports from a wide variety of sources assert that the demonstrations were mostly peaceful. Civilians of all ages participated in protests and often carried olive branches or showed their bare chests to indicate they had no weapons," the UN report said.