Struggling to counter widening violence and repression in Syria, the Obama administration stepped up calls Friday for a global trade embargo on oil and gas from the Middle East nation, warning even some of America's closest allies that they must "get on the right side of history" and cut links with a government that won't reform.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said international opinion was hardening against President Bashar Assad, noting a "crescendo of condemnation" from world powers and Syria's Arab neighbors. But she said tougher action was required, too.
"We urge those countries still buying Syrian oil and gas, those countries still sending Assad weapons, those countries whose political and economic support give him comfort in his brutality, to get on the right side of history," Clinton said.
Assad, she said, "has lost the legitimacy to lead and it is clear that Syria would be better off without him."
She stopped short of an explicit call for Assad to leave power, which the White House has been planning. A U.S. official said the demand will happen "sooner rather than later," though the hesitation reflects some concern in the administration about adopting a more aggressive tone without adequate support from European allies and Arab partners.
Another factor has been Turkey, a key NATO ally that neighbors Syria, whose foreign minister visited Damascus this week. Its government has expressed fears about further destabilizing Syria and prompting massive refugee flows across its border in repeated conversations and a telephone call Thursday between President Barack Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, according to officials. They spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal planning.
U.S. officials have been trying for weeks to rally international pressure against the Syrian government, mindful that U.S. sanctions and other measures to isolate Assad have had limited effect. The United States already severely limits trade and economic ties with Syria, leaving it little leverage with a leader who has aligned himself with U.S. archrival Iran and rebuffed the administration's engagement efforts.
The strategy has been to lean on governments, such as those in Europe, to enact tougher punishments on individuals and companies close to Assad so that pressure mounts for a halt to the violence. Activists say more than 1,700 people have been killed in five months of unrest.
Clinton didn't mention countries by name. But in an interview Thursday with CBS, she called for European governments to sanction Syria's oil and gas industry, and said India and China should re-evaluate their energy investments in the country. She also said Russia should stop selling weapons to Assad.
"The Assad regime's continued brutality is galvanizing international opinion," Clinton told reporters Friday after a meeting with Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere. She said countries must "turn this growing consensus into increased pressure" so that Assad pulls back his security forces from restive cities and begins a serious democratic transition.
Clinton suggested tougher international action might come soon and said the tougher global approach toward Syria was necessary "so there will not be any temptation on the part of anyone inside the Assad regime to claim that it is only the United States, or maybe it's only the West.
"Indeed, it's the entire world," she said.
In Europe, the Netherlands said governments may decide in the next week or two to broaden sanctions, possibly through an expanded travel ban and restrictions on the energy sector. Syria gets about 28 percent of its revenue from the oil trade and sells fuel to France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands.
The European Union has been reluctant to ban Syrian oil and gas imports for fear shortages might hurt the Syrian public and small businesses.
Associated Press writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report.