In his much anticipated Middle East speech, President Barack Obama gave Syrian President Bashar al-Assad two choices: Lead the transition toward democracy, or get out of the way.

The Syrian people have shown their courage in demanding a transition to democracy, Obama said Thursday at the State Department.

Now, 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 Dara'a; 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.

The president's speech comes one day after his administration took the first steps toward the promised isolation from abroad by imposing financial sanctions on Assad and six of his government's top officials, freezing all U.S. properties owned by them.

This, he said in his May 18 executive order, is an effort to quell the continuous escalation of violence against the people of Syria.

Obama gave further justification for the sanctions, saying, The Government of Syria constitutes an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States. It also accuses Assad and his six top officials of human rights abuses. Abuses, they say, that have left hundreds of civilians dead and put thousands behind bars.

Yesterday's sanctions were the second in three weeks, and the first to single out Assad by name.

Syria was quick to condemn the U.S. sanctions, saying it is just one in a series of sanctions imposed by the U.S. administration against the Syrian people as part of U.S. regional policies serving Israel, the official Syrian Arab News Agency reported Thursday, quoting an unnamed official source.