With the death toll in Syria mounting after five months of bloody anti-government protests, President Obama on Thursday called for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down from power.
"For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside," Obama said in a written statement.
The president ramped up sanctions against the Assad regime, banning U.S. imports of Syrian oil, prohibiting Americans from engaging in business with the Syrian government and freezing all Syrian assets under American control.
The European Union joined the call for Assad to resign, signaling a growing chorus of international disdain for the troubled leader. But the 27-member panel did not impose further sanctions on Syria -- and with more than 90 percent of Syria's oil exports going to European Union countries, it's unlikely that Obama's actions alone will have much of an impact on Assad.
Now Obama's critics are left scratching their heads as to why ?-- after five months of protests and more than 2,000 civilian deaths in Syria -- the president suddenly decided to crack down on Assad. Obama had earlier limited U.S. intervention in Syria to a series of sanctions against specific members of Assad's regime.
"It has taken President Obama far too long to speak out forcefully against Assad and his vicious crackdown in Syria," Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney said Thursday. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, another leading Republican contender, called Obama's decision "long overdue."
Obama's handling of Syria was in stark contrast to his reaction to homegrown political protests sweeping other countries in the Middle East and North Africa collectively known as the Arab spring.
Just a week after anti-government protests erupted in Egypt, Obama demanded that President Hosni Mubarak resign. Three weeks after protests broke out in Libya, Obama called for the resignation of President Moammar Gadhafi. When Gadhafi refused, the United States joined a NATO military strike against Libyan forces.
Each time the president's timing was different but his decisions were all predicated on the same factor -- getting approval of the Arab League before engaging, according to Graeme Bannerman, a Middle East expert and former adviser to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Obama called on Mubarak to resign days after Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa made the same call in a media interview. Obama's demand for Gadhafi's resignation followed Moussa's by only a couple of hours. Obama also waited on the Arab League to approve the no-fly zone over Libya before deploying American missiles.
In the case of Syria, it wasn't until last week that Arab leaders began to turn against Assad.
"The no-fly zone [over Libya] wasn't even an option until there was Arab support," Bannerman noted. Now, with Syria, "the decision of the Arab states has again given [Obama] cover," he said.
Obama has repeatedly insisted that he would rather build multinational alliances than act alone. But that has opened Obama up to Republican criticism that he is too deferential to foreign leaders, diminishing America's standing in the world.
"America must show leadership on the world stage and work to move these developing nations toward modernity," Romney said Thursday. "This means using the bullhorn of the presidency and not remaining silent for too long while voices of freedom and dissent are under attack."