REPORTING FROM BEIRUT-- President Obama, in his strongest condemnation yet of the leadership of Syrian President Bashar Assad, on Saturday assailed the Syrian government’s "unspeakable assault against the people of Homs," following opposition accounts of a overnight "massacre" in the city that left more than 200 dead.
"Assad must halt his campaign of killing and crimes against his own people now," Obama declared, reacting to opposition accounts of shelling of a neighborhood in Homs. "He must step aside and allow a democratic transition to proceed immediately."
The White House had previously called for Assad to step down, so the statement did not represent a change in position.
But the timing and emotional content were clearly meant to galvanize other nations to support a U.N. Security Council resolution -– backed by Arab nations and many Western nations, including Washington — that would condemn Assad’s 10-month-long crackdown on protesters.
"The council now has an opportunity to stand against the Assad regime’s relentless brutality and to demonstrate that it is a credible advocate for the universal rights that are written into the U.N. Charter," said Obama, who excoriated Assad’s "killing machine."
Instead, Russia and China vetoed a resolution that supported an Arab League peace plan calling on Assad to step down.
The Assad government says it is under assault from "terrorists" and Islamic militants armed from abroad.
Syrian authorities have denied opposition reports of an overnight massacre in Homs and blamed the episode on media misinformation. Media access is limited, so securing independent corroboration of events in Homs has been difficult.
The opposition says the military bombarded a civilian neighborhood with scores of mortars, killing between 200 and 300 people and leaving many more injured.
Video images circulating on the Internet Saturday purportedly showed funerals for some of those killed in the overnight shelling. Obama repeated opposition allegations that security forces had prevented "hundreds of injured civilians" from seeking medical assistance.
"The international community must work to protect the Syrian people from this abhorrent brutality," Obama said.
In his statement, Obama declared that Assad had displayed "a similar disdain for human life and dignity" as his late father, Hafez Assad, whom the younger Assad succeeded as president of Syria. The killings in Homs, Obama noted, came as many Syrians were defying security forces to commemorate the massacre 30 years ago, under Hafez Assad’s leadership, of thousands of civilians in the city of Hama.
In that case, the elder Assad’s security apparatus moved forcefully to put down a rebellion led by the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. Human rights groups estimate that more than 10,000 were killed in the Hama massacre. The incident has remained taboo for years in Syria, though the events of 1982 now serve as a rallying cry for protesters seeking Assad’s ouster.
-- Patrick J. McDonnell
Photo: Demonstrators against Syrian President Bashar Assad hold signs outside the United Nations on Saturday. Credit: John Minchillo / Associated Press