Clinton: Russia Needs to Back Syrian Transition

Posted June 3rd, 2012 at 3:40 pm (UTC-5)
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U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has pressed Russia to join international efforts for a political transition in Syria that would see President Bashar al-Assad driven from power.

She told a news conference in Sweden Sunday that Mr. Assad's “departure does not have to be a precondition but it should be an outcome.”

Clinton said she “made it very clear” to her Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in recent talks that the focus was shifting to a political transition in Syria rather than talks with Mr. Assad's government. “The Syrian people want and deserve change.”

Russia has twice vetoed U.N. Security Council resolutions which could have led to international action against Mr. Assad, and has backed his assertion that militants are to blame for Syria's bloodshed.

Earlier Sunday, the Syrian president dismissed accusations his government had anything to do with the recent massacre of civilians in Houla. Mr. Assad blamed forces outside Syria of plotting to destroy the country.

In Mr. Assad's first speech since January – a rare televised address to Syria's new parliament – he appeared to defy mounting international criticism of his ferocious response to the 15-month revolt against his rule.

The Syrian leader denied responsibility for the May 25 incident in Houla that left 108 people dead, including 49 children, saying not even “monsters” would carry out such an act. He condemned the massacre as “abominable.”

Mr. Assad said terrorists have pushed his country into war and he promised an uncompromising approach to national security. He asked, “When a surgeon performs an operation to treat a wound do we tell him: 'Your hands are covered in blood?' Or do we thank him for saving the patient?''

He insisted the revolt was the work of foreign-backed extremists – a “war from abroad” – not reformers seeking change.

Officials of the exiled opposition Syrian National Council condemned the president's address, brushing it off as “desperate and silly.”

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, who has called for international efforts to arm Syrian rebels, said Mr. Assad was using the peace plan of U.N. and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan to buy time to crush rebels.

Meanwhile, the Syrian conflict continued to spill over into neighboring Lebanon. Government troops deployed in the northern city of Tripoli Sunday after 14 people were killed in the latest clashes between pro- and anti-Assad militiamen.

Residents said relative calm had returned to the Mediterranean city since the soldiers took up positions after gunmen exchanged heavy machine gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades. Two people wounded in the fighting died on Sunday, adding to at least 12 killed on Saturday.

Sectarian violence has flared on a number of occasions in Tripoli since the revolt broke out in neighboring Syria last year. The Tripoli violence included street battles in May that left 10 dead.

Syria's uprising began with mostly peaceful protests, but a brutal government crackdown led many in the opposition to take up arms. Now, the conflict has developed into an armed insurgency with the rebel Free Syrian Army pledging to topple Mr. Assad's government.

The Syrian leader's speech came a day after Arab League leaders met in Doha for an emergency session with Kofi Annan, who said the “specter of all-out war” in Syria grows by the day. He said recent atrocities show the conflict is quickly spiraling out of control.

The Arab League has called for the U.N. Security Council to replace its almost 300 monitors in Syria with peacekeepers.