(Reuters) – The United States and European Union called on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down on Thursday after a five-month crackdown on protests in which U.N. investigators said troops used an apparent “shoot-to-kill policy” and widespread torture.
While N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Assad had assured him that military operations were over, activists said Syrian forces had carried out raids in Deir al-Zor and surrounded a mosque in Latakia Thursday.
President Barack Obama ordered Syrian government assets in the United States frozen, banned U.S. citizens from operating or investing in Syria and banned U.S. import of Syria petroleum.
In a coordinated move, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton called on Assad to step aside and said the EU was preparing to broaden sanctions against Syria.
“The future of Syria must be determined by its people, but President Bashar al-Assad is standing in their way,” Obama said. “His calls for dialogue and reform have rung hollow while he is imprisoning, torturing and slaughtering his own people.”
United Nations human rights investigators said Assad’s forces had carried out systematic attacks on civilians, often firing at short range and without warning and committing violations that may amount to crimes against humanity.
In a telephone call with Assad Wednesday U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon joined a chorus of condemnation, expressing alarm at reports of widespread violations of human rights and excessive use of force by security forces against civilians.
“The Secretary-General emphasized that all military operations and mass arrests must cease immediately,” a U.N. statement said. “President Assad said that the military and police operations had stopped.”
But the Syrian Revolution Coordinating Union, a grassroots activists’ group, said security forces fired machine guns near a mosque in Latakia which was surrounded by armored vehicles.
In the eastern city of Deir al-Zor, which was stormed by tanks 11 days ago, security forces backed by troops raided houses in al-Jubaila district, it said.
As well as the growing Western pressure, Assad also faces criticism from regional Arab states and neighboring Turkey over his military campaign against the uprising that escalated after the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on August 1.
“Assad is trying to convince Turkey that the attacks have stopped, which could also help appease the United States, thinking he could once again stop Washington from calling on him to step down,” a Western diplomat in Damascus said, before Obama’s statement.
“But the operations have not even stopped.”
“SHOOT TO KILL”
Assad, who inherited power in 2000 from his father, clearly believes overwhelming force will extinguish calls for the dismantling of the police state and the Assad clan’s monopoly on power, free elections and an end to corruption.
For Assad to enact the reforms he has been promising since he came to power, he would have to purge his strongest allies and end the control of the security apparatus over the state. Since they are the pillars of his power, that appears unlikely.
Assad says the protests are a foreign conspiracy to divide Syria and pledged last week his army would “not relent in pursuing terrorist groups.”
Syria has expelled most independent media since the unrest began, making it difficult to verify reports from the country.
The U.N. investigators said Syrian forces had fired on peaceful protesters throughout the country, often at short range and without warning, killing at least 1,900 civilians, including children. Their wounds were “consistent with an apparent shoot-to-kill policy,” their report said.
Some were reportedly finished off with knives.
“The mission found a pattern of human rights violations that constitutes widespread or systematic attacks against the civilian population, which may amount to crimes against humanity,” it said, specifically citing the Rome Statutes of the International Criminal Court (ICC).
U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay will address the 15-nation U.N. Security Council in a closed-door session on Syria Thursday, along with U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos.
“OHCHR (Pillay’s office) have indicated that their Syria report will find evidence that Syria has committed grave violations of international human rights law in its actions dealing with protesters over the past five months,” a diplomat told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
Pillay also will say an international investigation is needed and she was likely to suggest the ICC would be appropriate, the diplomat said.
The ICC is a permanent war crimes court based in The Hague.
The council has referred only two cases to the ICC — the situation in Sudan’s conflict-torn Darfur region and, earlier this year, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s crackdown against anti-government demonstrators.
Council diplomats say veto powers Russia and China would be reluctant to vote for a referral of Syria’s case to the ICC at the current time.