The United States is poised to shift its position on Syria by calling on President Bashar al-Assad to step down because of the violence he has inflicted on his own people and his failure to implement meaningful reforms for the last five months.
Barack Obama could issue the demand as early as Thursday in a speech that will mark a dramatic departure in the Syrian crisis. Until now US policy — echoed by Britain and its EU partners — has been that Assad must lead a transition or get out of the way. Now, for the first time, the US president will tell him bluntly to go.
In previous statements Washington has described Assad as “illegitimate” or “part of the past”. The White House on Wednesday decried Assad’s “heinous actions”, and spokesman Jay Carney said: “We are all watching with horror what he is doing to his own people.”
Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN, said on Wednesday that Washington had evidence of “crimes” in Syria and was ready to use it to step up pressure on Assad.
“He has lost his legitimacy … and Syria would be a better place without him,” Rice said. “We are looking … to lend support to the people of Syria who have the same aspirations for freedom and democracy that we have seen in so many other parts of the world.”
Syrian opposition sources and western diplomats predicted that an unconditional call for his departure would have far-reaching implications, though it would likely be couched in terms of US support for the aspirations of the Syrian people.
The precise timing and content of a presidential statement was still under discussion — partly because the US wants a full account of Assad’s six hours of talks on Tuesday with Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmed Davotoglu, officials said.
The British and French governments are considering their response amid doubts in Whitehall about the wisdom of the US move. It was unclear whether the US would also recognise a Syrian opposition government. Unlike in Libya, where the opposition is based in Benghazi, the Syrian rebels have no base inside the country and are divided on key issues.
US media have reported in recent days that the White House is more eager to make the announcement while the state department is more cautious about the ramifications in the likely event that Assad ignores Obama’s call.
In continuing violence on Wednesday, 17 people were killed in raids in Homs, al-Jazeera reported. New attacks by security forces were also reported from the north-eastern city of Deir Ez-Zor. Citizen journalists working for Avaaz said there had been nine fatalities there and two near Deraa.
The Turkish ambassador to Syria visited Hama, scene of recent heavy civilian casualties, where his presence reportedly led to the cessation of attacks by security forces. The envoy reported that tanks and heavy weapons were being moved out, Davutoglu said in Ankara.
Saudi residents in Syria were reported to have been arrested in apparent retaliation for Riyadh’s criticism of Assad, who King Abdullah described earlier this week as presiding over a “killing machine”.
The US also imposed sanctions on Wednesday on the state-owned Commercial Bank of Syria, its Lebanon-based subsidiary and the largest mobile phone operator Syriatel. The US treasury said it was “taking aim at the financial infrastructure that is helping provide support to Assad and his regime’s illicit activities”.
Signs of a shift in US policy came from the state department on Tuesday. “The message from 2009 was if you are prepared to be a reformer, if you are prepared to work with us on Middle East peace and other issues we share, we can have a new and different kind of partnership,” said spokeswoman Victoria Nuland. But “that is not the path that Assad chose.”
The US estimates that 2,000 people have been killed during the protests.
A state department spokesman declined to comment further except to say the US wanted to raise the pressure on Assad.