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World Leaders Echo Obama’s Call for Syria’s Assad to Step Down

August 18, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT

JEFFREY BROWN: And we turn to the situation in Syria. Today, the world laid down a new challenge to a government that rights groups say has now killed some 2,000 of its own people.

After five months of the Syrian uprising and the regime’s recent escalation of its crackdown on protesters, the U.S. and the U.N. sharply raised the stakes. Until now, President Obama had criticized Syrian leader Bashar Assad, but stopped short of insisting he step down.

That ended today, when the president issued a statement that said of Assad: “His calls for dialogue and reform have rung hollow while he is imprisoning, torturing, and slaughtering his own people. The time has come for President Assad to step aside.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton followed up with a statement of her own.

SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: This morning, President Obama called on Assad to step aside and announced the strongest set of sanctions to date targeting the Syrian government. These sanctions include the energy sector to increase pressure on the regime. The transition to democracy in Syria has begun, and it’s time for Assad to get out of the way.

JEFFREY BROWN: The sanctions will also freeze all Syrian government assets under U.S. jurisdiction and bar financial transactions with Syria. The Obama administration had worked for weeks to shore up support for today’s step. And Canada, Britain, France and Germany swiftly followed with their own demands that Assad give up power.

Investigators for the U.N. human rights panel joined in, recommending a referral to the International Criminal Court. Their report accused the Assad regime of committing numerous atrocities, including the summary executions of 353 people. The Syrian government rejected all of the criticism and reportedly accused President Obama and the West of — quote — “Seeking to stoke more violence in the country.”

But many dissenters in and out Syria, like this expatriate couple living in Jordan, welcomed the day’s developments.

MOHAMMAD AL JAZAIRI, Syrian (through translator): We support and endorse the decision of the American secretary of state and, before that, the U.S. president. We demand even more. The regime of Assad is no less than the Nazis. We demand that they be referred to a criminal court.

MAJEDAH JOHAR, Syrian (through translator): God bless her. They felt our pain in Syria, that we are an oppressed people for the past 30 years and our families live under oppression. They killed the people and displaced them.

JEFFREY BROWN: Just yesterday, President Assad had told U.N. Secretary Gen. Ban Ki-Moon that the military crackdown on protesters has now ended. But activists in the country disputed that. They said attacks in several cities continued overnight, with at least 18 more people killed.