AMMAN - The United States and European Union called on Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down on Thursday and US President Barack Obama accused him of "torturing and slaughtering" his people in what UN officials said would be crimes against humanity.
It was a dramatic sharpening of international rhetoric, major states had urged Assad to reform rather than resign.
Palestinian factions reconsider relations with Assad
Activists: Syrian forces kill nine people in Homs
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, Obama ordered Syrian government assets in the United States frozen, banned US citizens from operating in or investing in Syria and prohibited US imports of Syrian oil products.
Though UN 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 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.
At the United Nations, Britain, France, Portugal and Germany said they
would begin drafting a Security Council sanctions resolution on Syria.
"We believe that the time has come for the council to take further
action," Britain's Deputy UN Ambassador Philip Parham told reporters.
UN 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
A UN 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 UN 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.
The Syrian Revolution Coordinating Union, an activists' group, said
security forces fired machine guns near a mosque in Latakia which was
surrounded by armored vehicles.
It also said Assad's forces killed at least one man when they fired live
ammunition to stop residents from marching after Ramadan prayers, known
, in the Mureijeh neighborhood of Homs, 165 km (100 miles)
north of the capital Damascus.
Separately, it said security forces shot dead a man it identified as Ali
al-Hussein and wounded six when they fired at a sit-in in the town of
al-Ruhaibeh northeast of Damascus.
Similar attacks occurred in the Houla Plain north of Homs and in the
town of Qusair on the Lebanese border to the southwest, but there were
no immediate reports of casualties.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Assad responded to protests with "empty promises and horrific violence".
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 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
Rosemary Hollis, Middle East politics lecturer at London's City University, said the move could embolden the opposition.
"It will at least send a signal to the opposition that the West is not
going to save him in the face of their opposition. I think it will
rattle the regime, they will feel very isolated."
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 Assad died 11 years ago after
three decades in office.
He has so far brushed off international pressure and survived years of
US and European isolation following the 2005 assassination of Lebanese
statesman Rafik Hariri, a killing many Western nations held Damascus
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. US sanctions will
make it very difficult for banks to finance transactions involving
Syrian oil exports.
It will also make it challenging for companies with a large US
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
Syria has expelled most independent media since the unrest began, making it difficult to verify reports from the country.
The UN 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
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".
The United Nations also plans to send a team to Syria this weekend to
assess the humanitarian situation there, a U.N. official said on
UN human rights chief Navi Pillay will address the 15-nation UN
Security Council in a closed-door session on Syria on Thursday, along
with UN 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.