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Assad Admits Mistakes as Criticism of Syrian Killings Grows

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Syrian President Bashar al-Assad
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Photographer: Mohammad Berno/Document IRAN via Bloomberg

Aug. 11 (Bloomberg) -- Syrian President Bashar al-Assad responded to growing criticism about his deadly five-month crackdown on dissidents by admitting “some mistakes” were made by his security forces in the “initial stages” of unrest.

Diplomats representing Brazil, India and South Africa -- a bloc in the United Nations Security Council reluctant to punish Assad -- said in an e-mailed statement that they met in Damascus with the Syrian leader, who told them “efforts were under way to prevent” the mistakes from recurring.

Their appeal to both sides for an end to the violence came as European nations renewed a push for a UN resolution against the bloodshed and the U.S. imposed new financial sanctions on Syrian banks and telecommunications. Pushing back, Syria’s UN ambassador, Bashar Ja’afari, drew parallels between Prime Minister David Cameron’s response to U.K. riots and Syria’s approach to armed “gangs.”

Assad’s admission of errors at the onset of the protests in March doesn’t address the escalation in violence over the past week, said a western diplomat who isn’t authorized to speak publicly. At least four people were killed today in the northern province of Idlib, while one person died yesterday in the Damascus suburb of Saqba and another in the town of Nawa in Daraa province, Mahmoud Merhi, head of the Arab Organization for Human Rights, said by telephone from Damascus.

Deaths During Ramadan

At least 20 anti-government protesters were killed yesterday in Deir al-Zour, Homs and Idlib provinces in the second week of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, said Ammar Qurabi of the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria. Protesters took to the streets late yesterday after breaking their Ramadan fasts and completing evening prayers in Homs, Deir al-Zour, Latakia, suburbs of Damascus and Daraa, Merhi said.

Merhi dismissed government assertions that the army had withdrawn from Hama, which came under assault on July 31, the eve of Ramadan, by tanks, heavy machine-gun fire and armored vehicles. More than 300 people have been killed, mostly in Hama, since security forces escalated the crackdown last week, according to activists.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who visited Assad two days ago, said today he hadn’t received evidence that tanks re-entered Hama late yesterday. Turkey contacted the governor of Hama late yesterday after seeing reports that the armed forces had returned to the city, and was told by the official that there were no tanks or heavy weapons there, Davutoglu said in televised comments from Ankara.

Signs of Tanks

Turkish journalists crossed the border into Syria today to report on conditions, as part of an agreement between Davutoglu and Assad that included Turkey’s demand for the cessation of violence. Their work was restricted and they were escorted by Syrian officials on an indirect route to Hama, Turkey’s state-run Anatolia news service said.

Tanks were seen today about 20 kilometers (12 miles) outside Hama, Anatolia said. Buildings in the city were marked by artillery fire and the streets had signs of tank treads, it said.

Assad appointed General Fahad Jassem Fraij as the new army chief of staff, replacing Dawoud Rajhah, who was made defense minister Aug. 8, Al Watan reported today.

The situation in Syria is “depressing and chilling,” Philip Parham, U.K. deputy ambassador to the UN, told reporters after hearing UN Assistant Secretary-General Oscar Fernandez-Taranco’s briefing to the Security Council.

Thousands Dead, Missing

At least 2,000 mostly unarmed protesters have been killed, 3,000 people have disappeared, 13,000 have been arrested and tens of thousands have fled, Parham said. Human-rights activists who have compiled names of the dead since the uprising began say Syrian forces have killed more than 2,400 anti-government demonstrators.

Momentum may be building for bolder steps to stop Assad after Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors from Damascus and Turkey said its neighbor is entering a “critical” period.

The U.S. ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, said Syria would be better off without Assad, repeating the Obama administration’s stance that the leader has lost legitimacy. The New York Times today cited a U.S. diplomatic official as saying the Obama administration doesn’t expect Assad to remain in power and won’t rule out a civil war once he falls. U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford declined to comment on the report when reached by phone today.

‘It’s the System’

“To the U.S., getting Assad out now would maybe save lives and avoid bigger regional pressures later,” said Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. “However, even if he steps aside, that won’t take care of the problem because it’s not just the person, it’s the system itself.”

While further action is needed, getting the Security Council “on board” in light of Russia-led opposition may prove difficult, said George A. Lopez, a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame who was on a UN panel of experts monitoring compliance with sanctions. “Only massive and tight arms embargo, oil sanctions and further financial freezes can work now,” he said.

Russia has indicated it isn’t convinced that a UN resolution is needed to stop the repression of protesters.

“What we are telling them is that they need to have serious reforms as soon as possible,” Russia’s UN ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, told reporters yesterday. “We realize that it takes time. Especially in a dramatic situation like this, you cannot carry out reforms overnight. We see encouraging signs.”

U.S. Freeze

In Washington, the Treasury Department said it will freeze the assets of the Commercial Bank of Syria and a subsidiary, the Syrian Lebanese Commercial Bank, as well as mobile-phone company Syriatel.

“We are taking aim at the financial infrastructure that is helping provide support” to Assad, said David S. Cohen, U.S. undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel has called for an immediate cease-fire in Syria, warning that the situation is “heading to the point of no return,” according to Egypt’s state-run Middle East News Agency.

The shift in Arab and regional government positions to condemnations coupled with the recalling of ambassadors by three Gulf states shows “they’ve jumped on board the bandwagon and they consider this type of army and police behavior by Syria as unwarranted and unnecessary, especially in the holy month of Ramadan,” Karasik said. Arab countries are “trying to put pressure on Assad to either reform now or else understand that the whole regime will end up collapsing.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Massoud A. Derhally in Beirut, Lebanon, at mderhally@bloomberg.net; Emre Peker in Ankara at epeker2@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at barden@bloomberg.net; Mark Silva at msilva34@bloomberg.net.

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