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Clinton Deplores Syrian Crackdown, Urges Reform

US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton (l) with U.S. Ambassador to the UK, Louis Susmana, ahead of a meeting of international allies to discuss the next steps for Libya, March 29, 2011

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Tuesday the United States deplores the violent crackdown on protesters in Syria, and said President Bashar al-Assad must make good on pledges of political reform. The Clinton comments, in London, followed an unprecedented two weeks of open dissent in Syria.

The Obama administration is condemning the violence against Syrian protesters but also leaving the door open to continuing dialogue with President al-Assad, provided he redeems long-standing reform promises reiterated this week.

At a news briefing, State Department Acting Spokesman Mark Toner described the Syrian leader as being at a “crossroads” - claiming the mantle of reform but thus far failing to make substantive progress on easing the country’s authoritarian system.

At the London conference on Libya, Secretary Clinton said she discussed the situation in Syria in several side meetings with foreign ministers.

She said she expressed strong U.S. condemnation of what she termed the “brutal repression” of Syrian demonstrators, while expressing hope there is still an opportunity for reform.

“I think that we’re like the Syrian people, waiting and watching to see what comes from the Syrian government. They dismissed the cabinet today, which resigned en masse. And as we have said so many times before, we support the timely implementation of reforms that meet the demands that Syrians are presenting to their government, such as immediately eliminating Syria’s state of emergency law, which has been in effect for a long time," she said.

Clinton said it is up to the Syrian leadership, starting with President al-Assad, to prove they can be responsive to the needs of their people.

Despite congressional misgivings about high-level dealings with Syria, the Obama administration in January dispatched a U.S. ambassador Robert Ford to Damascus for the first time since 2005.

State Department spokesman Toner said the administration still sees merit in direct contacts with Damascus, and drew a distinction between the U.S. view of events in Libya and those in Syria.

“We don’t have a one-size-fits-all approach to what’s happening in the Middle East and north Africa. Clearly we’re appalled by the violence that’s taken place in Syria and we’ve been very vocal in expressing those concerns to the Syrian government. But the situation we had in Libya was an impending humanitarian crisis. There was an urgent international consensus that we needed to respond quickly, and we did so to avert what we felt was going to be a humanitarian catastrophe on a large scale," he said.

Toner said the United States is seeking consular access to two U.S. citizens arrested in Syria, at least one of whom has been accused by officials of stirring up anti-government protests. He said a third American detained in recent days has been released.