Obama to Syria's Assad: Democracy or leave

President Barack Obama delivers a policy address on events in the Middle East at the State Department in Washington, May 19, 2011. AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama on Thursday called for Syrian President Bashar Assad to lead his country to democracy or "get out of the way," his most direct warning to the leader of a nation embroiled in violence.

Obama said the United States has a historic opportunity and the responsibility to support the rights of people clamoring for freedoms at a policy address on the events in the Middle East at the State Department.

On Syria, Obama said the government "has chosen the path of murder and the mass arrests of its citizens." He praised the Syrian people for their courage in standing up to repression in a bloody crackdown that has killed hundreds.

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Obama said the region's revolutions speak to a "longing for freedom" that has built up for years and has led to the overturning of tyrants -- with perhaps more to fall. He embraced the call for change and compared it to signature moments of U.S. history such as the American revolution and the civil rights movement.

Obama said the "shouts of human dignity are being heard across the region."

The president noted that some "true leaders" had stepped down and that "more may follow." He quoted civilian protesters who have pushed for change in Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen but noted that among those countries, only Egypt had seen the departure of a long-ruling autocratic leader.

Obama said that while there will be setbacks that accompany progress with political transitions, the movements present a valuable opportunity for the U.S. to show which side it is on.

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