U.S. officials say the Obama administration is ready to make an explicit call for Syrian President Bashar Assad to leave power and has notified Arab and European allies that an announcement is imminent.
The timing is still in flux but preparations are in place for the White House to issue a statement Thursday demanding that Assad step down, the officials said. This would be accompanied by an announcement of new sanctions on the Assad regime and followed by an on-camera appearance by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to reinforce the U.S. position, the officials said.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter.
Although the officials acknowledged the move is not likely to have any immediate impact on the Syrian regime's behavior, they said it would send a powerful signal that Assad is no longer welcome in the international community. And they noted that the additional sanctions would further boost pressure on Assad and his inner circle.
President Barack Obama, Clinton and top national security aides have previously said that Assad has "lost his legitimacy" as a leader and that Syria would be "better off" without him. But they had not specifically demanded that he step down.
Thursday's expected new formulation of policy will make it clear that Assad can no longer be a credible reformist and has to leave, the officials said.
The administration had planned to make the announcement last week but postponed it largely at the request of Syria's neighbor Turkey, which asked for more time to try to convince Assad to reform, and because Clinton and other officials argued it was important to build a global consensus that Assad must go. Clinton on Tuesday publicly questioned the effectiveness of the United States 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."
Since then, however, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has compared Assad to Libya's Moammar Gadhafi for refusing to heed calls to change. Turkey has joined calls for Gadhafi to leave power and Erdogan said Wednesday he had personally spoken to Assad and sent his foreign minister to Damascus, but "despite all of this, they are continuing to strike civilians."
In addition, Tunisia on Wednesday recalled its ambassador from Syria, following the lead of several other Arab nations, including Saudi Arabia, that the U.S. has been lobbying to show displeasure with Assad.
And, on Thursday, U.S. officials say the U.N. human rights chief is expected to call on the U.N. Security Council to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court for investigation of alleged atrocities against protesters during the five-month uprising. Syria insists it is rooting out terrorists but rights groups accuse Syrian troops of killing more than 1,800 civilians since mid-March.
Such steps appear to match the administration's stated strategy of coordination.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Thursday that Washington was "working on a careful set of actions and statements ... and working with our partners on the same."
"Political steps, economic steps are strongest when they are together," she told reporters. "Words and sanctions should go together, and ideally, they should go in concert with others."