WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is preparing to explicitly demand the departure of Syrian President Bashar Assad and hit his regime with tough new sanctions, the Associated Press reported Tuesday, citing unnamed U.S. officials.
The White House is expected to lay out the tougher line by the end of this week, possibly on Thursday, according to the officials, who said the move will be a direct response to Assad's decision to step up the crackdown against pro-reform demonstrators by sending tanks into opposition hotbeds. The officials discussed internal administration deliberations on the condition of anonymity.
President Barack Obama and other top U.S. officials previously had said that Assad has "lost legitimacy" as a leader and that he either had to spearhead a transition to democracy or get out of the way. They had not specifically demanded that he step down.
At the same time, the Treasury Department is expected to expand sanctions against Assad and his inner circle, adding several new companies to a financial blacklist that will freeze any assets they have in U.S. jurisdictions and ban Americans from doing business with them, the officials said. They declined to identify the firms to be targeted.
Although the officials would only speak anonymously, the State Department on Tuesday telegraphed the planned shift in policy, saying the administration's two-year attempt to work with Assad, pull Syria out of Iran's orbit and transform it into a regional partner for peace and stability is over.
"You can't have any kind of partnership with a regime that does this kind of thing to innocents," spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters.
PRESSURE FROM TURKEY: Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said he met with Assad for more than six hours in the Syrian capital, Damascus, and discussed "concrete steps" to end the violent crackdown on protesters. Davutoglu did not say what specific steps they had discussed or whether Assad had agreed to consider them. There were indications Assad rebuffed the pressure. Assad rebuffed the pressure to scale back the crackdown. Syria's state-run news agency said he told Davutoglu the government will relentlessly fight "terrorist groups" — a term Syrian authorities often use for government opponents.