WASHINGTON - The Obama administration is planning to call for the resignation of Syrian President Bashar Assad as soon as this week, a senior U.S. official said Wednesday, turning up diplomatic pressure as Assad continues his bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators.
"It is his actions that have done it," the administration official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal policy deliberations.
A White House call for Assad's departure would be unlikely, by itself, to force him out. But proponents said it could encourage other countries to also press Assad to leave and help persuade influential businessmen in Syria to abandon him.
The decision comes as the administration is urging stronger action by countries in Europe and the Mideast that have deeper economic and political ties to Syria. Key regional powers such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey have harshly criticized Assad in recent days as his government has attacked protesters during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
The Obama administration has come under growing criticism from U.S. lawmakers for moving more cautiously on Assad than it did in seeking the departure of the leaders of Libya and Egypt when pro-democracy uprisings erupted in those countries.
"So far, we've all been led to believe that somehow the regime, or Assad ... can be instrumental in some sort of a transition," said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center. Having the White House demand that Assad leave "speeds up the process of delegitimization of the Assad government. That's extremely important."
In the past 10 days, the Syrian government has escalated an effort to crush demonstrations that have spread throughout the country, sending tanks into opposition strongholds and firing on civilians, according to human rights groups. U.S. officials have put the death toll in the nearly five-month-old uprising at 2,000.
Over the past few weeks, the Obama administration has come close to urging Assad's departure. White House spokesman Jay Carney reiterated Wednesday that Syria "would be better off without President Assad."
But U.S. authorities had hesitated to go further because of concern that Assad could shift the negative focus onto Washington, saying it was trying to engineer his removal.