The Obama administration is planning to call for the resignation of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as soon as this week, a senior US official said Wednesday, turning up diplomatic pressure as Assad continues his bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators.
"It is his actions that have done it," the administration official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal policy deliberations.
A White House call for Assad's departure would be unlikely, by itself, to force him out. But proponents said it could encourage other countries to also press Assad to leave and help persuade influential businessmen in Syria to abandon him.
The decision comes as the administration is urging stronger action by European and Middle Eastern countries that have deeper economic and political ties to Syria. Key regional powers such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey have harshly criticized Assad in recent days, as his government has attacked protesters during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
The administration has come under growing fire from U.S. lawmakers for moving more cautiously on Assad than it did in seeking the departure of the leaders of Libya and Egypt when pro-democracy uprisings erupted in those countries.
"So far, we've all been led to believe that somehow the regime, or Assad . . . can be instrumental in some sort of a transition," said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center. Having the White House demand that Assad leave "speeds up the process of delegitimization [of the Assad government]. That's extremely important."
In the past 10 days, the Syrian government has escalated an effort to crush demonstrations that have spread throughout the country, sending tanks into opposition strongholds and firing on civilians, according to human rights groups. U.S. officials have put the death toll in the nearly five-month-old uprising at 2,000.
Over the past few weeks, the Obama administration has come close to urging Assad's departure. White House spokesman Jay Carney reiterated Wednesday that Syria "would be better off without President Assad."
But US authorities had hesitated to go further because of concern that Assad could shift the blame onto Washington, saying it was trying to engineer his removal. The U.S. government wants to "make sure that the story remains about the Syrian people and not about us," said Jeffrey Feltman, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, at a recent House hearing.
In addition, the administration had been trying to determine how to time such an announcement to get the maximum effect. The decision to call for Assad's resignation was first reported by the Associated Press.
A European official said Washington had been discussing with its allies in recent days whether to call for Assad's ouster.
"If there is any concern [among allies], it is more linked to timing," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatic talks. Some U.S. allies are concerned that such an act could make Russia and China less cooperative on pressuring Syria through the U.N. Security Council, the official said.
The Security Council remains divided over how to react to the violence in Syria. In a closed-door briefing Wednesday, the U.N. assistant secretary general for political affairs, Oscar Fernandez-Taranco, said that UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon appealed to Assad in an Aug. 6 phone call to "stop the use of military force against civilians immediately."
But since then, Fernandez-Taranco said, "the political and human rights crisis . . . has deepened, with increased violence and the same pattern of antigovernment protests, military operations by security forces and supporting militia . . . killings and mass arrests."
The United States, Britain, France, Germany and Portugal urged the council to invite the United Nations' high commissioner for human rights and its top emergency relief coordinator to provide a briefing on Syria. But Brazil, China, India and Russia raised concerns about the idea and said the council needed to focus on finding a diplomatic solution to the crisis in Syria.
"We believe that the crucial thing for the international community is to make sure that the dialogue starts," said Vitaly Churkin, Russia's envoy to the United Nations.
Assad has appeared undeterred by the rising international criticism of his government. While Syrian tanks began Wednesday to pull out of Hama, an opposition stronghold that has been under siege for 10 days, the military moved into two towns near the Turkish border, news services reported.
The Obama administration also announced Wednesday that it is imposing fresh sanctions on Syria's biggest bank. It was the latest move to tighten sanctions, which prohibit most U.S. business with Syria.
The sanctions announced Wednesday expanded a 2004 measure that had barred U.S. financial institutions from dealing with the state-owned Commercial Bank of Syria.
The latest sanctions also target Syriatel, a mobile phone operator owned by Rami Makhlouf, a Syrian businessman close to the Assad government.
In an exclusive partnership with The Washington Post