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July 10, 2011

Clinton Says Syria’s Assad 'Not Indispensable'

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has sharpened U.S. criticism of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, after pro-government mob attacks Monday on the U.S. and French embassies in Damascus.  Clinton said the Syrian leader has “lost legitimacy,” and should not see himself as indispensable to the country’s future.  

The comments by Clinton reflect the growing tensions in bilateral relations after the embassy incidents, in which pro-government Syrian protestors scaled the walls of the U.S. embassy and ambassador’s residence, and caused damage at both.

There was a similar attack on the French embassy, turned back only after French guards fired warning shots.

The action is seen as Syrian retaliation for a visit last week by U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford and his French counterpart Eric Chevallier to the city of Hama, a flashpoint for democracy protests with a long history of resistance to Assad family rule.

At a press event with EU chief diplomat Catherine Ashton, Clinton toughened U.S. rhetoric toward the Syrian leader, saying among other things that he has lost legitimacy, accepted aid from Iran in repressing his own people, and should not count on being part of his country’s political future.

“If anyone, including President Assad, thinks that the United States is secretly hoping the regime will emerge from this turmoil to continue its brutality and repression, they are wrong," said Clinton. "President Assad is not indispensable, and we have absolutely nothing invested in him remaining in power.”

Clinton’s comments came after the Syrian charge d’affaires in Washington was called into the State Department to hear an official protest about the embassy incidents, which came despite a personal assurance by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallam to Ambassador Ford Sunday that security would be stepped up.

Syrian authorities were angered at the visits by Ford and his French colleague to Hama, with Syrian media accusing the U.S. diplomat of meeting with so-called “saboteurs” and instigating violence.

Clinton said the events are an effort by the Syrian leadership to divert attention away from its ongoing brutal response to anti-government protests, in which more than 1,000 civilians have been killed since March.

“The Assad regime will not succeed in deflecting the world’s attention from the real story unfolding in Syria," she said. "This is not about America or France or any other country. This is about the legitimate aspiration of the Syrian people for dignity, universal rights and the rule of law.”

The events since Ford’s Hama visit last Thursday have put new focus on the veteran U.S. envoy, whose posting to Damascus early this year - as the first American ambassador there in six years - came despite heavy bipartisan criticism from Congress.

Robin Wright, a longtime diplomatic reporter and a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace, says Ford has one of the most complex assignments of any U.S. ambassador, with the trip to Hama a prime example.

“The United States wants to push for change but is clearly not going to take action like it has in Libya," said Wright. "But Ambassador Ford has done two imaginative things.  He went to Hama, in effect signaling American support for the right to free speech and free assembly, and also posted a pretty serious message on a Facebook page - basically challenging the regime for its actions against the U.S. embassy, and actions against its own citizens in places like Hama.”

Wright said that while Syrian officials have cast the embassy incidents as spontaneous acts by Syrians, the official inspiration for the attacks is “totally transparent,” and that it is “stunning” that Syrian authorities cannot grasp how crude the tactics appear to the outside world.