WASHINGTON – The United States threatened an intensified international response to Syria’s attacks on its protesting citizens Friday, tied the country to Iran’s actions, and hinted that the current regime has lost its legitimacy to lead.
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“The Syrian government’s actions are neither those of a responsible government, nor a credible member of the international community,” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement released late Friday night – though she stopped short of branding Syrian President Bashar Assad’s rule illegitimate.
“We will continue to hold to account senior Syrian officials and others responsible for the reprehensible human rights abuses against the Syrian people,” Clinton continued.
In recent days, the US and EU have slapped sanctions on top regime officials involved in the alleged human-rights abuses, but that has failed to put a stop to Syria’s bloody crackdown on its own citizens.
The US has taken similar steps in Iran, where the opposition groups have also been challenging the current regime, and has several times over the weeks of protest sought to draw attention to the events in Iran.
“The Syrian government continues to follow the lead of its Iranian ally in resorting to brute force and flagrant violations of human rights in suppressing peaceful protests,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said in his statement Friday.
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International criticism has increased against Assad, who is trying to preserve his family’s 41-year grip on power in the country of 20 million people.
European Union governments agreed on Friday to impose asset freezes and travel restrictions on up to 14 Syrian officials, as well as some sanctions in response to Assad’s violent crackdown.
The US adopted sanctions of its own last week against some figures in the Syrian government. On Friday it threatened to step up the pressure to try to stop the violence, which rights campaigners say has killed more than 800 people.
But the new Western sanctions are seen as insufficient to sway Syria’s ruling elite in the near term, and tougher steps are unlikely, as they would penalize mainly ordinary Syrians.
In a separate statement also released Friday evening, Carney said, “The United States believes that Syria’s deplorable actions toward its people warrant a strong international response.”
“The United States and its international partners will take additional steps to make clear our strong opposition to the Syrian government’s treatment of its people,” he added.
But Carney seemed to leave open the possibility that the US viewed that government as potentially able to reform and continue to lead the country – in contrast to other countries facing domestic uprisings, such as Libya and Egypt, where the White House said unequivocally that its leaders should go.
“The United States and the international community will adjust their relations with Syria according to the concrete actions undertaken by the Syrian government,” he said, referring to the need for a “significant change in the Syrian government’s current approach.”
That change must include “an end to the government’s killing of protesters and to the arrest and harassment campaigns of protesters and activists” as well as “a genuine political reform process,” Carney said.
The sharp statements from the White House and State Department come as the Syrian regime on Friday added to its toll of civilians killed in its effort to put down opposition protests.
After thousands took to the streets again on Friday, close to 30 protesters were reported killed, as access to phone service and electricity were cut in several places.
Assad also benefits from a lack of pressure on him from fellow autocratic rulers in the Arab League, analysts say.
There are international fears of disorder in Syria if Assad is overthrown, since the country straddles many of the fault lines of Middle East conflicts.
Syrian officials give a lower death toll from the unrest, and say half the fatalities have been soldiers and police, blaming “armed terrorist groups.” They said demonstrators are few in number and do not represent the majority of Syrians.
Protests broke out after Friday prayers in cities across Syria, from Banias on the Mediterranean coast to Qamishly in the Kurdish east.
The bloodiest confrontation was in Homs, where 15 protesters were killed, activist Ammar Qurabi said.
The state news agency SANA said on Saturday that “terrorist groups” had killed 11 soldiers and policemen in Homs, listing the names of those dead. The figure was put at five on Friday.
Four protesters were killed by security forces in Deir al- Zor, a local tribal leader said – the first deaths reported in seven weeks of unrest from the region that produces most of Syria’s 380,000 barrels per day of oil.
A Western diplomat said 7,000 people had been arrested since mid-March.Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny.
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