U.S. to call for Syrian president's resignation

U.S. President Barack Obama is preparing to explicitly call for Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down, fresh on the heels of new sanctions against the troubled country.

Canada to push for stronger sanctions against Syria, Harper says

Syrians walk past a T-shirt with a portrait of President Bashar Assad, who is facing growing international condemnation for his deadly crackdown on the country's five-month-old uprising. (Bassem Tellawi/Associated Press)

U.S. President Barack Obama is preparing to explicitly call for Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down, fresh on the heels of new sanctions against the troubled country, White House officials say.

The moves are a direct response to Assad's decision to escalate the crackdown by sending the army into opposition hotbeds.

The White House has never said the Syrian strongman must go, instead saying that he is "on the wrong side of history and his people" and that his crackdown on protesters is "horrifying."

"As soon as today, Obama will come out and say 'Assad, it is time to go,'" CBC reporter Lindsay Duncombe said Thursday from Washington, D.C.

A flurry of foreign diplomats have rolled through Damascus urging Assad to end the five-month campaign of killing that rights groups say has left about 1,700 dead since mid-March.

Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the UN said Wednesday that Assad had lost his legitimacy to rule.

"We think that it would be much, much better for the people of Syria, and Syria would be better off, without Assad," she said.

Presidential spokesman Jay Carney echoed that Thursday, stopping just short of calling for Assad's ouster, saying that Syria "would be a much better place without him."

"We believe that President Assad's opportunity to lead the transition has passed," Carney told reporters travelling on Air Force One with Obama to Michigan.

Sanctions affect banks

The new sanctions affect the state-owned Commercial Bank of Syria and its Lebanon-based subsidiary, the Syrian Lebanese Commercial Bank, for what the U.S. says are their links to human rights abuses and to illegal weapons trade with North Korea.

Mobile phone company Syriatel was targeted because it is controlled by "one of the regime's most corrupt insiders," said David Cohen, the U.S. Treasury Department's undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence.

The action freezes any assets the firms have in U.S. jurisdictions and bans Americans from doing business with them. But they may not have much immediate economic impact because the U.S. already severely limits trade and economic ties with Syria.

While the U.S. ratchets up its rhetoric, it appears highly unlikely that the country would take military action similar to the NATO attacks in Libya. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has consistently said military use is not on the table.

"You've got the conflict in Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan at the same that they are contemplating and making huge military cuts," CBC's Duncombe said.

Canada to push for stronger sanctions

Speaking from Costa Rica, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Canada would "continue to condemn the brutal actions of the Syrian government in the strongest possible terms."

"Their behaviour is outrageous and I think they're on a path that frankly is not sustainable," Harper said.

He also noted that Canada would push for stronger sanctions against Syria.

"We will work with our partners to do what we can, including bringing forth stronger sanctions," he said Thursday. "That is something that we'll be elaborating on in the not-too-distant future."

Canada has already put sanctions on Syria that prevent the country's leaders from travelling to Canada and essentially ban trade between the two countries. But the measures are largely symbolic because Canada exports only about $60 million a year to Syria, and receives less than a tenth of that in imports, The Canadian Press reported.

Army storms border town near Turkey

On the ground in Syria, the army stormed a northwestern town near Turkey's border on Thursday, a day after authorities declared the military pulled out of the region, activists said.

The attack on the town is particularly noteworthy because it sits in a province bordering Turkey. The area has witnessed intense protests against Assad's regime, forcing hundreds of Syrians to flee across the border. Turkey's foreign minister on Wednesday, a day after meeting with Assad, renewed his condemnation of the attacks.

In the latest incursion, troops stormed Saraqeb and detained at least 100 people, according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. At least five people have been killed in the latest attack, rights groups say.

In the city of Hama, which has a history of opposing Assad, government troops were shown on state television earlier this week rolling out of the city. But Time magazine reporter Rania Abouzeid, who was in Hama during the supposed pullout on Aug. 9, told CBC News Thursday that the city is still under siege with a strong military presence and pro-government armed gangs still in the streets.

"Rather than stand down, [Assad] is going to fight this out," Abouzeid said while in transit to Beirut, adding that protesters also feel that they if they stop now the regime will hunt them down one by one.

Abouzeid said the protesters simply want Assad out — not weakened or compromised.

"Both sides are quite entrenched and both sides are extremely determined to see this through," she said.

Syria claims its dealing with terrorists

The government justified its attacks on various cities by saying it was dealing with terrorist gangs and criminals who were fomenting unrest.

The uprising was inspired by the revolutions and calls for reform sweeping the Arab world, and activists and rights groups say most of those killed have been unarmed civilians. An aggressive new military offensive that began with the Ramadan at the start of the month killed several hundred people in just one week.

The London-based observatory said authorities on Wednesday night detained opposition figure Hassan Zahra during a raid in a Damascus suburb. Zahra, a 67-year-old member of the Communist Action Front, was detained at least once since the uprising began, it said.

"It's unclear what the international community can do, what any more statements or condemnations or requests by the U.S. or the United Nations or any other country can do. The Syrian regime seems to be going along the track that it's been going down for the last five months, which is meeting largely peaceful protests with violence."

With files from The Associated Press and The Canadian Press