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May 19th, 2011
01:45 PM ET

Obama to al-Assad: Embrace democracy or 'get out of the way'

(CNN) - President Barack Obama's new blueprint for change in the Middle East slammed the Syrian government for "murder and mass arrests" and sent a blunt message to President Bashar al-Assad to get with democratic change.

In a wide-ranging speech about Middle East policy on Thursday, Obama touched on the fierce Syrian crackdown against the street demonstrations that have rippled across the country since mid-March.

Obama told an audience at the State Department that Syrians have displayed "courage in demanding a transition to democracy" but the regime "has chosen the path of murder and the mass arrests of its citizens."

"President Assad now has a choice: He can lead that transition, or get out of the way. The Syrian government must stop shooting demonstrators and allow peaceful protests; release political prisoners and stop unjust arrests; allow human rights monitors to have access to cities like Daraa; and start a serious dialogue to advance a democratic transition. Otherwise, President Assad and his regime will continue to be challenged from within and isolated abroad," he said.

He also said that Syria has sought help from Iran "in the tactics of suppression."

"This speaks to the hypocrisy of the Iranian regime, which says it stand for the rights of protesters abroad, yet suppresses its people at home. Let us remember that the first peaceful protests were in the streets of Tehran."

Obama's speech was aired on Syrian state television.

On Wednesday, Obama imposed new sanctions against al-Assad and those around him, and earlier Thursday, Syria denounced the move, state TV reported.

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