U.S. says Syria at turning point, stresses pressure

By Updated at 2012-04-18 18:23:12 +0000


BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Syria is at a turning point where the violence must stop or the United States will find ways to increase pressure on the Damascus government, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Wednesday.

Clinton gave no details of what the United States or other nations might do if a much-violated ceasefire between government forces and rebels does not take hold and if U.N. monitors are unable to fully deploy in Syria.

Clinton spoke at a meeting of NATO ministers in Brussels, where she was asked about action to halt bloodshed in the year-long popular uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has sought to crush it with tanks and troops.

U.N.-Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan has proposed a peace plan calling for the deployment of U.N. observers, the withdrawal of heavy weapons and troops from population centers, humanitarian aid and the release of political prisoners.

"We are at a crucial turning point. Either we succeed in pushing forward with ... monitors steadily broadening and deepening a zone of non-conflict and peace or we see Assad squandering his last chance before additional measures have to be considered," Clinton told a news conference.

"We will continue to increase the pressure on Assad," she added, saying she had spoken to counterparts "about the need to tighten sanctions, tighten pressure on the regime, on those who support the regime."

Because the United States and the European Union already have extensive economic sanctions on Syria, the main hope for those who advocate greater pressure is that Arab states apply their own sanctions much more rigorously.

As she has in the past, Clinton also appeared to leave the door open to other nations arming Syrian rebels - something the United States has itself rejected although it is giving the opposition communications and logistical assistance.

"I have only spoken for the United States. The United States is not providing lethal arms," she said when asked if it was time to give greater consideration to arming the rebels.

While the truce has held in some parts of Syria since Assad pledged to enforce it last week, in strong opposition areas such as Homs, Hama, Idlib and Deraa the army has kept up attacks on rebels, using heavy weapons despite its pledge to pull back.

Syria's foreign minister told reporters in Beijing that no more than 250 truce monitors were needed, and they should come from what he called "neutral" countries such as Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, which have been more sympathetic to Assad than the West and Arab League states.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was due to present proposals for the next phase of the mission on Wednesday to the Security Council. He has said more monitors and aircraft are needed to supervise a truce in a large country of 23 million.

More than 10,000 people have been killed in 13 months of fighting.

(Reporting by Sebastian Moffett and Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Mark Heinrich)