As Syria Conflict Rages On, Clinton's Rhetoric Intensifies

PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks to the media after a conference of foreign ministers in Istanbul, Turkey, Sunday, April 1, 2012.
AP Photo

From calling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad a reformer to saying he must go and criticizing Russia directly for its support of the Syrian regime, 16 months of comments from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the crisis in Syria have seen her rhetoric intensify, as the bloodshed in Syria continues. The UN estimates more than 10,000 people have been killed since the conflict began, but activists say that number is as many as 14,000 people. The violence shows no signs of slowing, with some officials now saying the country has descended into civil war. But the hope that Assad could meet the needs of his people was not out of line more than a year ago, says Tamara Wittes, the director of the Saban Center for Middle East policy at the Brookings institute.

"When the uprising first began, there was a question of how [Assad] was going to respond," Wittes told ABC News. "Well, he chose to respond with violence and denial and de-legitimation of his own citizen's aspirations. So yes, the U.S. position evolved in response," she says.

Over the last several months the harshest rhetoric has shifted from being directed to not only Assad but to Russia, with Secretary Clinton and other U.S. officials calling out the country for its continued support of Syria, including the shipment of weapons. Wittes says that reflects an acknowledgement that Assad will not likely change his mind on his own.

"For him this is now an existential battle," says Wittes, "He knows, just of all of his know that there is no future for Syria with him in charge."

But Wittes says a focus on pressuring Russia won't likely be enough to force Assad to step down, and in the meantime the violence continues to spin out of control.

"While it may be helpful to put pressure on Russia, it can't be the sole focus of American diplomacy," says Wittes. Given the changing sectarian nature of the violence, Wittes says the United States and its allies on Syria need be "focused on what they can do to manage what's taking place on the ground today."

March 27, 2011

On CBS's Face the Nation, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was asked whether the Arab Spring would affect Syria. Assad's father, Bob Schieffer pointed out, had killed 25,000 during an uprising. "There's a different leader in Syria now," responded Clinton. "Many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he's a reformer."

March 29, 2011

Taken to task on the "reformer" label for Assad, Clinton refined her comments: "I referenced opinions of others. That was not speaking either for myself or for the administration."

"We deplore the crackdown that is occurring in Syria and we call on Syria, as we have throughout the last months, to respect the rights of its citizens, to allow people to protest peacefully, to work toward political and economic reform that would be to the benefit of the Syrian people....

"It is up to the Syrian Government, it is up to the leadership, starting with President Bashir Assad, to prove that it can be responsive to the needs of its own people. So we're troubled by what we hear, but we're also going to continue to urge that the promise of reform, which has been made over and over again ... will actually be turned into reality."

July 10, 2011

At a press conference in Washington, D.C., following an attack by pro-government mobs on the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, Clinton states that al-Assad had "lost legitimacy," and that "President Assad is not indispensable and we have absolutely nothing invested in him remaining in power. Our goal is to see that the will of the Syrian people for a democratic transformation occurs."

February 24, 2012

At the Friends of Syria meeting in Tunisia, Clinton reiterates her call for a democratic transition. "We call for a negotiated political solution to this crisis and an inclusive democratic transition to address the legitimate aspirations of Syria's people in an environment free from violence, fear, intimidation, and extremism. And we are firmly committed to the sovereignty, independence, national unity, and territorial integrity of Syria."

April 10, 2012

At the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Clinton threatened that the U.S. and other allies may go back to the Security Council and force Russia to either veto or abstain on a resolution vote. Her comments came after Syria violated Annan's six point peace plan, which focused on a ceasefire to end the violence, allowing unfettered humanitarian aid into the country, and supporting a peaceful political transition to democracy. "There doesn't seem to be any other pass than that one right now," said Clinton, who vowed to keep pushing a resolution on Syria, particularly on humanitarian aid. "We are not going to give up until we can get some action."

April 16, 2012

In Paris at a Friends of Syria meeting, the Secretary said, "We have to keep Assad off balance by leaving options on the table," she said. "We need to start moving very vigorously in the Security Council for a Chapter 7 sanctions resolution, including travel, financial sanctions, an arms embargo, and the pressure that that will give us on the regime to push for compliance with Kofi Annan's six-point plan."

April 18, 2012

At a joint press conference with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in Brussels, Clinton said Syria and the Security Council are at a "crucial turning point" in making sure that UN and Arab League Special Envoy Kofi Annan's six-point peace plan is implemented. She made a thinly veiled dig at Russia, who also signed on in support of Annan's plan, for lack of progress in pressuring the Assad regime to implement it. "The burden has shifted, not only to the Assad regime but to those who support it, to be forced to explain why, after time and time again stating that they will end the violence, the violence continues."

May 24, 2012

Clinton remarks after the Release of 2011 Country Reports on Human Rights at the State Department in Washington D.C.: "In some places, like Syria, it is not just an assault on freedom of expression or freedom of association, but an assault on the very lives of citizens. The Assad regime's brutality against its own people must and will end, because Syrians know they deserve a better future."

May 31, 2012

Clinton at a news conference in Copenhagen: "The Russians keep telling us they want to do everything they can to avoid a civil war, because they believe that the violence would be catastrophic. They often in their conversations with me liken it to the equivalent of a very large Lebanese civil war and they're vociferous in their claim that they are providing a stabilizing influence. I reject that. I think they are, in effect, propping up the regime at a time when we should be working on a political transition."

June 7, 2012

Clinton at a news conference in Turkey following a meeting with the Friends of Syria contact group representatives: "We're disgusted by what we see happening," said Clinton. "The regime-sponsored violence that we witnessed again in Hama yesterday is simply unconscionable," she said. "Assad has doubled down on his brutality and duplicity, and Syria will not, cannot be peaceful, stable or certainly democratic until Assad goes."

June 12, 2012

Clinton at Brookings Institute: "We have confronted the Russians about stopping their continued arms shipments to Syria. They have, from time to time, said that we shouldn't worry - everything they are shipping is unrelated to [the Syrian government's] actions internally. That's patently untrue," she said. "And we are concerned about the latest information we have that there are attack helicopters on the way from Russia to Syria, which will escalate the conflict quite dramatically."

June 13, 2012

Clinton at news conference in Washington: "Russia says it wants peace and stability restored. It says it has no particular love lost for Assad and it also claims to have vital interests in the region and relationships that it wants to continue to keep. They put all of that at risk if they do not move more constructively right now."

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