A top U.S. diplomat said Wednesday that protests in Syria and the government’s deadly crackdown have changed that country forever, and that a return to stability is possible only through a transition to democracy and reform.
For more than two months, unarmed protesters in Syria have demonstrated against the government of President Bashar al-Assad, demanding a more responsive and democratic government.
"The response of the Syrian regime, of course, has been one of murder and mass arrests," said Tamara Wittes Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs at the U.S. State Department. She told an audience at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace that change in Syria is inevitable.
“Things in Syria have changed irrevocably," she said. "There is no going back. One way or another, the Syrian government’s relationship with its people, the Syrian nation’s relationship with the region, is never going to be the same.”
Hundreds of people have been killed and thousands more have been arrested since the protests began in mid-March.
In a major speech last week, U.S. President Barack Obama called on President Assad to lead the transition to democracy or “get out of the way.”
The Syrian government has blamed the unrest on armed gangs and foreign agitators.
Wittes disagrees. “There is no foreign conspiracy here, as some in Syria might claim," said Wittes. "There is no external generator. What you see in Syria is what you are seeing across the region, driven by the same indigenous trends and forces that are driving change elsewhere in the region.”
Wittes said the Syrian government must stop the violence against peaceful protestors and allow people to exercise their basic political rights.
She said President Assad must release the detainees and stop mass arrests.
“There are those who would argue that what is happening in Syria right now is a threat to regional stability and that people in the region are anxious about instability in Syria, especially should Assad leave office," she said. "I think it is very important to note that it is the Syrian regime here that is the generator of instability in their response to what is taking place. They are fomenting violence and fomenting danger.”
Wittes said the only way to achieve true stability is through a process of democratic change and reform.
The United States and the European Union have imposed sanctions on President Assad and other senior Syrian officials, freezing all assets under American and EU jurisdiction.
Wittes said that unless there is a transition to democracy in Syria, the Assad government will continue to be challenged from within the country and face escalating pressure from other nations.
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