Five months into the slaughter of Syrian protesters by their government, U.S. President Barack Obama has called on Syrian strongman Bashar Assad to resign.
In a written statement quoted by the Associated Press, Obama said Assad has overseen a "vicious onslaught" against his people as they protest for freedoms. He said the Syrian people will decide their country's future but Assad is standing in their way and must go.
Obama said Assad's calls for reform rang hollow while he was "imprisoning, torturing and slaughtering his own people."
"The future of Syria must be determined by its people, but President Bashar al-Assad is standing in their way. His calls for dialogue and reform have rung hollow while he is imprisoning, torturing, and slaughtering his own people," Obama said. "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."
The statement marks Obama's first explicit call for Assad to step down. His administration was reportedly also about to slap new sanctions on Syria, through an executive order.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is supposed to elaborate upon the government's tougher stance later Thursday.
To date, the administration has stopped short of calling for Assad's removal, saying only that he had lost all credibility to rule. However, it notified its Arab and European allies on Wednesday that it was going further and that an announcement was imminent.
Officials who spoke to AP acknowledged the move is not likely to have any immediate impact on the Syrian regime's behavior, but said it would send a powerful signal that Assad is no longer welcome in the international community.
The administration had planned to make the announcement last week but postponed it after Turkey asked for more time to try to convince Assad to reform. In addition, Clinton and other officials argued it was important to build a global consensus, rather than acting alone.
"It is not going to be any news if the United States says Assad needs to go," she said. "OK, fine, what's next? If other people say it, if Turkey says it, if (Saudi) King Abdullah says it, there is no way the Assad regime can ignore it."
Ahead of the White House announcement, a high-level U.N. human rights team in Geneva said Thursday that Syria's crackdown "may amount to crimes against humanity" and should be referred to the International Criminal Court. U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay is expected on Thursday afternoon to make that recommendation.