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Clinton starts new push to end crackdown in Syria

29 march 2012, 17:13
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. ©AFP
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. ©AFP
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton leaves Thursday for a two-country tour aimed at raising pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to end a deadly year-long crackdown, AFP reports.

In the second such push in a month, Clinton travels first to Riyadh for talks Friday and Saturday with Saudi and other Gulf Arab leaders before engaging in broader meetings Sunday with Arab, Turkish and Western officials in Istanbul.

Clinton will meet in Riyadh with Saudi King Abdullah and Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal as well as ministers of Saudi Arabia's five Gulf Arab neighbors -- Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman.

The Friends of Syria meeting in Turkey follows the inaugural one Clinton attended in Tunis at the end of February -- a response to Western and Arab failure to win Russian and Chinese backing at the UN Security Council.

Aides said Clinton will discuss how to make Assad comply with a new plan to end the crackdown on a pro-democracy movement, study further sanctions against his regime and consider ways to aid the opposition who will be in Istanbul.

The chief US diplomat was highly skeptical Tuesday after Assad said he accepted a six-point plan that Kofi Annan, the UN and Arab League envoy, had submitted to him earlier this month.

"Given Assad's history of overpromising and underdelivering, that commitment must now be matched by immediate actions," Clinton said. "We will judge Assad's sincerity and seriousness by what he does, not by what he says."

Annan's plan calls for a commitment to stop all armed violence, a daily two-hour humanitarian ceasefire, full media access, an inclusive Syrian-led political process, a right to demonstrate, and release of prisoners.

On Wednesday US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland assailed Assad for failing to live up to his promises. "This is not a good sign that the arrests and the violence continue," she said.

"We're going to be continuing to look at what more we can do on the sanctions side to pressure the regime," Nuland said of the conference in Istanbul.

"And obviously, we'll all be comparing notes on how we can support Kofi Annan, particularly on the important point of getting Assad to meet the commitment that he's made," she said.

Nuland said the US delegation will also discuss ways to deliver humanitarian aid to the Syrian people -- during a crackdown UN officials now estimate has cost more than 9,000 lives in a year -- and how to promote opposition unity.

Clinton said Tuesday the United States will press the disparate opposition "very hard" to present a "unified vision" in Istanbul that protects the rights of all Syrians.

Washington wants the opposition to fully represent Sunnis, Christians, Kurds, Druze, Turkmen and others, including Alawites, the minority Muslim sect that Assad hails from.

Saudi Arabia and its neighbor Qatar have called for arming the opposition, which includes the Free Syrian Army, made up of Syrian military defectors.

Initially vowing to promote the peaceful opposition, the United States and Turkey now agree on the need to send "non-lethal" aid to Syrian rebels, including communications equipment.

Nuland said the discussions on non-lethal aid will continue in Istanbul.

The United States is somewhat wary of dealing with the opposition amid apparent fears they could end up arming Islamist extremists.

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