Clinton: Syrian regime responsible for over 2,000 deaths

Top US diplomat repeats Assad has lost legitimacy; US analysts: Obama administration's heightened rhetoric must be matched by action, Assad unlikely to deploy Palestinians to Israel's borders in September.

By OREN KESSLER, REUTERS
August 4, 2011 23:55
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

hillary clinton_311 reuters. (photo credit: REUTERS/Tony Gentile)

 
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Washington believes Syrian President Bashar Assad's government was responsible for more than 2,000 deaths in its nearly five-month crackdown on protests, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Thursday.

Clinton repeated that the United States believes Assad has lost legitimacy in Syria, and said the U.S. and its allies are working on strategies to apply more pressure beyond new sanctions announced on Thursday. Washington extended sanctions Thursday to include a prominent Syrian businessman and member of parliament whom it said was a front for the interests of Assad and his brother, the fourth round of government-targeted sanctions yet.

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Activists said Syrian troops killed at least 45 civilians Thursday in a tank assault to occupy the center of the besieged city of Hama, sparking an international outcry against Damascus. The deaths came a day after the UN Security Council overcame deep divisions to condemn Damascus' repressive measures.

On Tuesday, US envoy to Syria Robert Ford told a Senate confirmation hearing that Assad was consistently using "constant brutality" and "atrocious torture" against unarmed civilians. But experts said it remained unclear whether that stronger rhetoric actually reflects a changed US policy toward Damascus.

"I think Ford was very much in line with administration policy - or at least administration rhetoric," said Elliott Abrams, a Middle East fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, responding to a question from The Jerusalem Post during a media conference call. "And the rhetoric changed because the situation on the ground keeps getting worse and the administration keeps getting hit in the major newspapers, for example the New York Times and Washington Post ... I think the question is whether in addition to the rhetoric changing, the policy will change."

Robert Danin, also a Middle East fellow at the CFR, added, "The administration wanted to give the Assad regime an out, but it didn't comply. So I think the position has changed, and the administration has come to a place where it says 'This regime has no future and there's nothing that can be done with it.' But I think it tried to give the Syrian regime an out, largely because our own tools are very limited ... The only thing the administration hasn't done is actually call for Assad to go, but I don't think that option is so important at this point. What's important now is what we do rather than which word formulation we use."



Danin also referred to the Palestinian Authority's unilateral statehood bid September in the UN, and the potential for Syrian-supported protests on Israel's borders. Palestinians living in Syria marched on Israel's borders in May and June to mark Arab losses in the 1948 and 1967 wars. "It seems the choice to deploy Palestinian refugees to the border actually proved counterproductive and backfired. They did it twice, both on Nakba Day and Naksa Day, and there was a backlash within Syria," he said from Washington. "People were angry, saying, 'Why did you send us to our deaths, unarmed and without protection?' So we've seen the Syrian government back off from that tactic. But with this regime one can't rely on it to act in its own best interests or wisely. I wouldn't expect something similar in September, but this regime could miscalculate and do something really stupid."

Wednesday's UN statement, read out to a council meeting by Indian Ambassador Hardeep Singh Puri "condemns widespread violations of human rights and the use of force against civilians by the Syrian authorities."

It called for "an immediate end to all violence and urges all sides to act with utmost restraint, and to refrain from reprisals, including attacks against state institutions."

Diplomatic pressure against Assad continues to grow. French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told France2 television on Thursday, "We are confronted with a repressive regime and we will continue to raise the pressure ... We will no longer remain silent when authoritarian and dictatorial regimes bloodily suppress popular freedom movements."

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said his Syrian counterpart "needs to urgently carry out reforms, reconcile with the opposition, restore peace and set up a modern state. If he fails to do this, he will face a sad fate."

EU states, meanwhile, agreed to further extend sanctions but stopped short of targeting the oil industry and banks, which dissidents say would be the only way to choke off funds fueling repression in the country.

"I urge President Assad to listen to the international community, to finally stop the violence, to protect the Syrian people and to address the EU's repeated calls to grant fundamental freedoms," said EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.

Responding to Assad's formal approval of laws which would allow for the formation of political parties other than the ruling Baath Party, Ashton said: "The latest reforms announced by President Assad are in principle a step in the right direction, but only if they are genuinely put into effect. We are still waiting for previously announced reforms to be implemented.

Germany called for the UN to name a special envoy to the Syria crisis. "Together with our partners, I will urge the U.N. to name a special envoy for Syria who will start work immediately, carrying the international community's clear message to Damascus and adding authority to the demands of the Security Council," German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said.

The only UN Security Council member opposing Wednesday's statement was rotating member Lebanon. Lebanese envoy Caroline Ziade told the council the Western-drafted statement "does not help in addressing the current situation in Syria." Statements are meant to be unanimous, meaning Lebanon could have blocked it, but by simply disassociating itself Beirut allowed the statement to pass.

But Lebanon's opposition was drowned out by a chorus of Western states seemingly intent on applying more pressure on Assad. White House spokesman Jay Carney said the Syrian leader was "the cause of instability" in the country, and US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice said Damascus "has been counting on the fact that the Security Council would be unable to speak ... and that they would have protectors and defenders that would make it impossible for ... condemnation to emerge."

"Surely they must be quite surprised and disappointed by the outcome," she said.


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