In his strongest rhetoric yet Obama tells Syrian President Bashar Al Assad he needs to step down. Obama accused him of “torturing and slaughtering” his people in what U.N. officials said may be crimes against humanity

By Khaled Oweis

AMMAN | Thu Aug 18, 2011

(Reuters) – The United States and European Union called on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down on Thursday and Barack Obama accused him of “torturing and slaughtering” his people in what U.N. officials said may 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.

Putting faith in sanctions rather than force, President Obama ordered Syrian government assets in the United States frozen, banned U.S. citizens from operating 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.

United Nations 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 new U.N. report 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.


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.

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

In the eastern city of Deir al-Zor, which was stormed by tanks 11 days ago, security forces backed by troops raided houses in al-Jubaila district, it said.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Assad responded to protests with “empty promises and horrific violence”: “For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for him to step aside and leave this transition to the Syrians themselves.”

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

“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.

“People who were standing on the sidelines, and reluctant to join the uprising, will now do so. This message will have much more of an impact than an air raid campaign or an invasion.”


It may take time, however, for the diplomatic broadside, backed by the new 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 rebels 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 make it also 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 that of 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.”

Syria has expelled most independent media since the unrest began, making it difficult to verify reports from the country.


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.

Some were reported to have been finished off with knives.

“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, specifically citing the Rome Statutes of the International Criminal Court (ICC).

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.”

U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay will address the 15-nation U.N. Security Council in a closed-door session on Syria on Thursday, along with U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos.

“OHCHR (Pillay’s office) have indicated that their Syria report will find evidence that Syria has committed grave violations of international human rights law in its actions dealing with protesters over the past five months,” a diplomat told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

Pillay also will say an international investigation is needed and she was likely to suggest the ICC war crimes court in The Hague would be appropriate, the diplomat said.

The Security Council has referred only two cases to the ICC — over Sudan’s conflict-torn Darfur region and, earlier this year, Gaddafi’s crackdown on anti-government demonstrators.

Council diplomats say veto-holding powers Russia and China would be reluctant to vote for a referral of Syria to the ICC.

(Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed and Deborah Charles in Washington, Justyna Pawlak in Brussels, Mohammed Abbas in London, Mariam Karouny in Beirut and Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Jon Hemming and Alastair Macdonald)


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