US to tell Assad that he must go

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration is preparing to explicitly demand the departure of Syrian President Bashar Assad and hit his regime with tough new sanctions, U.S. officials said Tuesday as the State Department signaled for the first time American efforts to engage the government are finally over.

The White House is expected to lay out the tougher line by the end of this week, possibly on Thursday, according to officials who said the move will be a direct response to Assad’s decision to step up the ruthlessness of the crackdown against pro-reform demonstrators by sending tanks into opposition hotbeds. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal administration deliberations.

President Barack Obama and other top U.S. officials previously had said Assad has “lost legitimacy” as a leader and he either had to spearhead a transition to democracy or get out of the way. They had not specifically demanded he step down. The new formulation will make it clear Assad can no longer be a credible reformist and should leave power, the officials said.

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 would not 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.

The assessment in some ways confirms the obvious, coming as Assad’s government presses on with a bloody crackdown on Syria’s opposition in the face of mounting international pressure. More than 1,700 people have been killed, according to activists.

Yet the bluntness of the message reveals the administration’s exasperation with a regime it has tried to reach out to despite a history of tense relations stemming from Syria’s close ties to Iran, and the Assad dynasty’s support for Shiite militants who have fought Israel and U.S.-backed governments in Lebanon.

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