Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has lost his legitimacy amid a crackdown on dissent across the country and mob attacks on the U.S. and French embassies in Damascus.
Tensions between the two countries have escalated since last week when Robert Ford, the first U.S. ambassador to Syria in six years, traveled to Hama, a hotspot for anti-regime sentiment, and met with residents. Syrian authorities said the visit was proof the U.S. was seeking to “incite” rebellion.
“From our perspective, he has lost legitimacy. He has failed to deliver on the promises he’s made,” Clinton said yesterday in Washington. “President Assad is not indispensable, and we have absolutely nothing invested in him remaining in power.”
The direct criticism of the Syrian leader, an assessment the Obama administration had previously been reluctant to make, was a shift from March, when Clinton said that some U.S. lawmakers saw Assad as a reformer. Ten days ago, while traveling in Lithuania, Clinton warned the Syrian leader that he was “running out of time” to meet the demands of protesters.
Syria’s government condemned Clinton’s remarks, saying they are “provocative” and “constitute further evidence of blatant U.S. intervention in the internal affairs of Syria,” according to a statement carried by the official Syrian Arab News Agency. The “legitimacy” of Syria’s “political leadership is based neither on the United States nor on others, it is exclusively from the will of the Syrian people,” the government said.
Since Ford’s trip, pro-Assad demonstrators have gone from throwing eggs and tomatoes at the U.S. and French embassies in Damascus to climbing over compound walls and injuring three French guards.
About 300 people infiltrated the U.S. Embassy compound yesterday, with some climbing the roof before U.S. Marines dispersed them, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in Washington. Protesters wrote anti-American graffiti on the building, and broke windows and security cameras.
The French Embassy also was attacked yesterday, for the second day in a row. Three guards were hurt and the French ambassador’s car destroyed, according to a statement by the France’s Foreign Ministry. French security guards fired shots in the air to disperse the mob, according to the statement.
Ford traveled through a checkpoint on July 7 to reach Hama, where he spoke to more than a dozen residents and visited a hospital. France’s ambassador, Eric Chevalier, also went to Hama and visited wounded people and their families at a hospital.
Clinton said the Assad regime was using the anti-American protests to divert attention from its brutality.
“By either allowing or inciting this kind of behavior,” Clinton said, Syrian leaders “are clearly trying to deflect attention from their crackdown internally and to move the world’s view away from what they’re doing and create some kind of ongoing conflict between Syrians and people like our diplomats.”
Anti-regime protests that began in March have posed the biggest challenge to Assad’s rule since he inherited power from his father, the late President Hafez al-Assad, 11 years ago. They have been part of a wave of unrest across the Middle East and North Africa this year that has unseated the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia.
A committee of Syrian intellectuals and academics, convened by Assad to hold a “national dialogue” to bridge the country’s divides, called for a full review of the constitution, the creation of a human rights council and the release of all political prisoners. A representative of the committee, Ibrahim Al-Darraji, read the requests today on state television. Some leading members of the opposition had boycotted the meeting.
Assad has “sought and accepted aid from the Iranians” on how to suppress his own people, Clinton said yesterday.
Syrian forces killed at least three anti-government protesters in Homs on July 10 and wounded dozens of others, Mahmoud Merhi, head of the Arab Organization for Human Rights and Ammar Qurabi, head of the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria, said by telephone.
At least 20 people were killed July 8 as 500,000 people rallied in Hama to call for the fall of Assad’s government, according to Merhi and Qurabi.
Demands ‘Have Merit’
Assad has blamed the protests on a foreign conspiracy, while saying that the demands of demonstrators “have merit” and that changes are needed. The crackdown in Syria has left more than 1,700 dead, according to rights groups. At least 20,000 people have been arrested since the demonstrations began, with half still in detention, Qurabi said.
Thousands of Syrians have fled across the border to Turkey to escape violence in northern towns, straining relations between the countries. A total of 8,561 Syrians remain in camps in Turkey set up by the Turkish Red Crescent in the province of Hatay, the country’s Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency said today in a statement. As many as 15,490 people have entered Turkey since the upheaval began, it said.
The effects of the unrest on the Syrian economy have been limited, the country’s central bank governor, Adib Mayaleh, said in a May 31 interview. Deposits at Syrian banks declined for about 10 days in the first quarter, then recovered after the central bank took measures to boost confidence, he said.