Syrian security forces killed at least 32 protesters and arrested more than 300 people after U.S. President Barack Obama, in concert with European allies, called on Bashar al-Assad to step down.
At least 27 people died today in a suburb of the capital, Damascus, the Homs governorate and Daraa, where the revolt against Syria’s president began in mid-March, said Ammar Qurabi of the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria. Five were killed yesterday at rallies in the Damascus suburbs and across the country, according to Qurabi and Mahmoud Merhi, head of the Arab Organization for Human Rights. State media said four security forces members were killed by militants in Daraa.
Western calls on Assad to step down “will certainly have an impact,” Merhi said by phone from Damascus. “They will embolden people and strengthen the momentum of the rallies.”
In a coordinated move yesterday with U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Obama issued a statement saying the Syrian people deserve to chart their own future.
The European Union said today it reached an agreement to broaden sanctions against the Syrian regime, including preparing for an embargo on Syrian crude oil into the bloc.
The measure by Western governments may add to pressure for United Nations action to penalize the government for the crackdown that Merhi and Qurabi say has killed more than 2,400 people. About 500 members of the security forces have died during that time, the government has said.
Faced with the most serious threat to his family’s 40-year rule, Assad has deployed tanks, armored vehicles, artillery and helicopters to crush the uprising that began after revolts ousted the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt and sparked a conflict in Libya.
Today’s crackdown left several people injured in Daraa, a southern area, and the city of Aleppo, Merhi said.
Security was tight as Muslims attended the midday Friday prayers, which have been followed by weekly protests during the five months of unrest. Forces prevented those under 55 from attending prayers today in Daraa, Al Arabiya television said, citing unidentified activists.
The citizens of Syria “have braved ferocious brutality at the hands of their government,” Obama said. “For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.”
Obama’s declaration was his first explicit call for Assad to give up power since the uprising started. He also signed an executive order freezing any Syrian government assets in the U.S. and banning import to the U.S. of petroleum products of Syrian origin. The order prohibits people in the U.S. from doing business with Syria.
The EU is adding 20 Syrian individuals or entities to those targeted for an asset freeze and travel ban. A proposal is being prepared for consideration by the council next week for an embargo on Syrian crude oil and suspension of technical assistance of the European Investment Bank.
“The European Union continues to aim at putting an end to the brutal repression and assisting the Syrian people to achieve their legitimate aspirations,” EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said in the statement.
U.S. and Western powers in the UN Security Council will introduce a draft resolution in the coming days that includes measures to increase pressure on the government, U.K. Deputy Ambassador Philip Parham said, without giving specifics. Miguel Berger, Germany’s deputy ambassador, said it will include sanctions.
A UN team will go to Syria this weekend on a four-day mission to assess the humanitarian situation, emergency relief coordinator Valerie Amos told reporters. She said the government has pledged “full access” for the team.
Marc Ginsberg, a former U.S. ambassador to Morocco, was among experts on the region who said the U.S. action will do little by itself to weaken Assad. Analysts and administration officials said pressure will increase if coordinated sanctions cut off enough Syrian oil exports to affect government finances or if other nations empower opponents inside Syria. About 90 percent of its oil exports go to Europe, according to the U.S.
Syria, whose output is declining, produces about 385,000 barrels of crude a day and has the Middle East’s ninth-largest reserves, according to data from BP Plc.
Further sanctions at the UN level may be hindered by Russian resistance. Russia opposes calls on Assad to step down, the Foreign Ministry in Moscow said today on its website. Assad needs time to implement promised changes in Syria, the ministry said, while calling for a halt to all violence in the country.
“We don’t share the point of view of the U.S. and EU about President Assad and will continue to follow our consistent and principled line on Syria,” the ministry said.
In addition to wanting to defend the right of states to deal with internal problems without outside interference, Russia and China “feel quite betrayed over what happened in Libya and believe the Western states have overstepped their mandate with helping the rebels,” Phillips said.
“Russia has been building a base in Syria for its navy in the Mediterranean and the Syrian regime in many ways is Russia’s closest ally, serving a key strategic purpose,” he added.
Obama’s choices since the violence began have been limited by “how complicated and uncertain” the situation is in Syria, Russia and China’s resistance to sanctions and how Iran or terrorists could react, said Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Direct intervention by the U.S. would risk forcing Arab and other Muslim states to support Assad, he said. “You would see it be popular in the United States and Israel, but it would not have achieved any meaningful strategic effect.”
Even now, Cordesman said, Assad “doesn’t care what people around him or countries around him think,” and he could hold on to power for another year or more. “We have absolutely no idea of what will happen if Assad goes,” he said.
In his statement, Obama said the U.S. “cannot and will not impose this transition” for the Syrian people, who have expressed “their strong desire that there not be foreign intervention in their movement.”