After months of stepping gingerly around calls that he firmly renounce the rule of Syrian President Bashar Assad, President Obama today joined other world leaders in demanding that Assad step down.
"The future of Syria must be determined by its people, but President Bashar al-Assad is standing in their way," Obama said in a statement this morning. "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."
For the past several months, the Assad regime has launched military strikes against civilian protesters in a number of cities around the country as part of an effort to crush an anti-regime uprising. Thousands of civilians have been reportedly killed in the process.
Obama administration officials have previously condemned the regime's brutality, and said that Assad had "lost his legitimacy" in the eyes of his own people, but had not explicitly called for him to resign.
In a briefing for reporters, three senior administration officials defended the slow and deliberate pace of Obama's decision to finally call for Assad to go, saying they wanted to match any rhetoric with strong action from several allies.
"Our aim has been to build a strong international response, and condemn and isolate the Assad regime," one of the officials said. "We want to lead a chorus of voices and pressures, not just make a solo act." According to the officials, the turning point for the administration came at the beginning of August. "I think at the beginning of Ramadan [on August 1] we saw an uptick in violence and horrific brutality that made it perfectly clear that President Assad had no credibility, that everything he said about making reports and puling back forces was a lie and had no credibility and we had lost patience with him," an official said. "Assad has a perfect record of empty promises, and as the violence increased, the emptiness of his empty promises became more apparent."
Obama was joined by half a dozen other world leaders who released simultaneous statements condemning Assad and calling for him to leave office.
A statement from the leaders of the UK, France and Germany said:
Our three countries believe that President Assad, who is resorting to brutal military force against his own people and who is responsible for the situation, has lost all legitimacy and can no longer claim to lead the country. We call on him to face the reality of the complete rejection of his regime by the Syrian people and to step aside in the best interests of Syria and the unity of its people.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper also put out a call for Assad to leave office:
Canada reiterates its strong condemnation of the ongoing violent military assault by the Assad regime against the Syrian people. This campaign of terror must stop.
The Assad regime has lost all legitimacy by killing its own people to stay in power.
I join with President Obama and other members of the international community in calling on President Assad to vacate his position, relinquish power and step down immediately. The Syrian people have a right to decide for themselves the next steps for Syria's future.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton also made statements calling for Assad to leave office.
In addition to the tough language, the Obama administration also imposed strict new sanctions on the Syrian petroleum industry on Thursday, and introduced a blanket ban on Americans conducting business with the regime or its oil industry.
Administration officials repeatedly said that they did not believe a democratic transition in Syria could be imposed by an outside power, and indicated they did not expect military force to be used by the United States in case the new sanctions fail.
"I don't think anybody believes that is the desired course in Syria," the official said.
Instead, the officials expressed confidence that Assad's departure from power was imminent.
"The Syrian people have had forty years of induced political coma," another official said. "People are getting confident, they're engaged politically and they're not afraid anymore. The United States will support their movement but will respect their desire to chart a new course for themselves but without international interference." "We are certain Assad is on the way out," the official continued. "We are certain his isolation will continue to increase."
This post has been updated to include statements from the Obama administration.