News / Middle East

US Toughens Syria Rhetoric Amid Rising Death Toll

A demonstrator protests Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, Dec. 19, 2011.
A demonstrator protests Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, Dec. 19, 2011.

The United States Wednesday warned Syria of additional punitive steps by the international community if the government of President Bashar al-Assad fails to halt its crackdown on protestors. The U.S. call came before the expected arrival in Syria Thursday of an advance team of Arab League monitors.

U.S. officials are expressing dismay that Syrian security forces are escalating repressive steps only a day before the monitors' long-awaited arrival.

Amid reported death tolls in Syrian clashes approaching 200 over a two-day span, the White House said Wednesday that words by the Assad government have no credibility "when they continue to be followed by outrageous and deplorable actions."

Obama administration officials said Damascus had already flagrantly violated Arab League peace protocol commitments it had signed onto Monday, pledging to end violence and withdraw security forces from residential areas.

The White House urged what it termed "Syria’s few remaining supporters" to warn Damascus that if the Arab League initiative is not fully implemented, the international community "will take additional steps to pressure the Assad regime to stop its crackdown."

State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said such action should begin with a tightening of economic sanctions, such that "any countries that are continuing to trade with the regime or otherwise line its coffers, and give it fuel, food, money -- anything that it can use against its own people -- [would have to] examine hard their own national policies."

Syria expert Andrew Tabler, visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), says Syria was apparently able, in negotiations with the Arab League, to pare down the number of monitors going in from several hundred to about 120.

He attributes this week’s surge in violence to an effort by Damascus authorities to decimate the opposition before monitors arrive.

"They want to be able to kill and finish-off a lot of people before the monitors show up," he said. "They know that a lot of these activities they have been carrying out are now going to have the potential for being spotted and reported upon, so they want to make sure that they take care of that. Second, I think a lot of the opposition over the last few weeks has gone down the road toward more of an armed opposition, and I think that is getting a response from the Assad regime and driving up the death toll.”

Tabler said the currently envisioned Arab League monitoring force is not nearly large enough, and unless something can be done to increase the number of observers, their presence will be "irrelevant" and fail to solve the crisis.

The White House said the only way to bring about the change the Syrian people deserve is for President Assad to leave power.

Tabler, however, said he sees no inclination by the Syrian leader to depart and that U.S. policy, as a consequence, is "stuck."

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