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US, EU Warn of New Steps Soon Against Syria

US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, May 16, 2011

US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, May 16, 2011

The United States and European Union are warning of new action against the Syrian government in the coming days if it does not halt its crackdown against protesters. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and EU chief diplomat Catherine Ashton discussed Syria and efforts to get Iran back to big-power nuclear talks.

Clinton and Ashton made clear they are losing patience with Syrian leaders and their reform promises, and are indicating that new sanctions or other punitive steps against Damascus are imminent.

Meeting reporters after talks at the State Department, the two expressed alarm about reports this week of mounting casualties in clashes between Syrian security forces and demonstrators.

Both the United States and European Union have imposed sanctions against Syrian officials implicated in the violence, but have not yet directly targeted President Bashar al-Assad.

Ashton said she spoke with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallim last week and told him the Damascus government needs to take advantage of what she termed a “closing window of opportunity” and change course.

“If the government really does, and it keeps telling us it does, want to see some kind of change, it has got to be now," she said. "I think we are all very aware that the situation is so grave, that it is now in the situation where we need to consider all of the options. And I think there will be a number of moves in the coming hours and days that you will see.”

Clinton said she agreed with Ashton that further steps will be taken in the days ahead in the face of a Syrian crackdown, which she said has killed, by best estimate, nearly 1,000 people.

“They have embraced the worst tactics of their Iranian ally, and they have refused to honor the legitimate aspirations of their own people in Syria," said Clinton. "President Assad talks about reforms, but his heavy-handed brutal crackdown shows his true intentions.”

Ashton has been a go-between with Iran in efforts to get it to return to talks about its nuclear program with world powers.

She and Clinton expressed disappointment over a letter from Tehran earlier this month on Iran’s terms for returning to the bargaining table, with Clinton saying Iran should drop all conditions.

“Lady Ashton is preparing a response to Iran’s recent letter," she said. "But let me make clear that the burden remains on Iran to demonstrate it is prepared to end its stalling tactics, drop its unacceptable preconditions and start addressing the international community’s concerns.”

Ashton said she would like to see a new round of talks, but does not anticipate that happening soon, based on the Iranian note.

The last meeting between Iran and the five permanent U.N. Security Council member states and Germany was in January in Istanbul.