Five months into Syrian President Bashar Assad's bloody crackdown on peaceful pro-democracy protesters, the United States and other Western nations finally called yesterday for the brutal despot to step down.

It's about time.

While promising reform, Assad has been slaughtering, imprisoning and torturing civilians in an effort to retain power. His security forces reportedly have killed nearly 2,000 people including 35 Tuesday in Latakia and 200 two weeks ago in Hama. He has to go.

The coordinated call for his resignation by the United States, Britain, France, Germany and the European Union signals this group is betting the regime won't survive. President Barack Obama upped the ante with new sanctions -- freezing Syrian government assets, banning petroleum imports, barring investment there by U.S. citizens and denying it access to the U.S. financial system. The United Nations called for an International Criminal Court investigation of the atrocities.

Those steps will ratchet up pressure on Assad, but they aren't likely to drive him from power. The Syrian people will have to do that. Still, the forceful condemnation and economic squeeze should make it clear to Assad and other despots that meeting peaceful protests with guns and tanks will cost them their legitimacy as heads of state.

Quick victories by pro-democracy movements in Tunisia and Egypt this year have given way to nasty struggles in Libya and Syria, where change has proved difficult. But the United States is now clearly lined up behind the people in those nations seeking democracy. It's the right place to be. hN