Syrian anti-regime activists called for fresh protests after the weekly Muslim prayers yesterday, as US President Barack Obama led a chorus of calls for Syria’s autocratic leader to step down.
The protests, which weekly draw tens of thousands onto Syria’s streets calling for the fall of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, will test Assad’s commitment that his security forces have ended operations against civilians.
Only hours after Assad gave the commitment to UN chief Ban Ki-moon, his security forces on Thursday night opened fire to disperse an anti-regime protest in Homs, killing at least one person and wounding another, according to an activist on the scene.
Security forces also deployed in numbers in several locations after Thursday evening prayers, including the suburbs of Damascus, where protests were reported and shots were heard, a rights group said.
Facebook group “The Syrian Revolution 2011,” one of the drivers of the protests, said yesterday’s rallies would be held under the slogan, “Friday of the beginnings of victory.”
The civilian death toll from the security force crackdown on the protests has now passed 2,000, UN Undersecretary General B. Lynn Pascoe told the UN Security Council on Thursday.
Frustrated that international calls for a halt to the bloodletting were being ignored by Damascus, Obama on Thursday called for Assad to quit and slapped harsh new sanctions on Syria, freezing state assets and blacklisting the oil and gas sector.
The White House later expressed hope that the EU would follow suit, conscious that the US has only limited leverage over Damascus compared to the Europeans, whose oil purchases help to bolster the regime.
It was the first explicit US call for Assad to resign since the pro-democracy uprising — inspired by the revolts that toppled leaders in Egypt and Tunisia — erupted on March 15.
“We have consistently said that President Assad must lead a democratic transition or get out of the way. He has not led. For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside,” Obama said.
His call was quickly echoed by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron.
“We call on him to face the reality of the complete rejection of his regime by the Syrian people and to step aside in the best interests of Syria and the unity of its people,” the trio said in a joint statement.
The UN said a humanitarian mission would go to Syria this weekend as European powers launched a campaign for UN Security Council sanctions against Assad.