U.S. sees "progress" after Syria activists meet

Reuters News
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Posted: Jun 28, 2011 3:19 PM
U.S. sees "progress" after Syria activists meet

By Andrew Quinn

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States said on Tuesday that Syria's move to allow activists to meet to discuss political change was a positive step but that the government needed to do more to launch real reforms.

"The fact that opposition members were allowed to meet in Syria for the first time in decades, as I understand it, is progress and is something that is new and is important for the democratic process in Syria that we all want to see," State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said.

"We think this is a move in the right direction, but there is far more to be done. The violence needs to end throughout Syria and a broader public process needs to begin."

Some of Syria's leading intellectuals used Monday's meeting to call for sweeping political change, and the government announced it would invite opposition figures to July 10 talks to set the framework for a dialogue promised by President Bashar al-Assad.

Assad, facing a three-month old revolt against his rule, has repeatedly held out the prospect of political reforms while his troops have moved to crush demonstrations.

Many opposition figures reject Assad's call for dialogue as insufficient and some activists refused to take part in Monday's conference, saying it could be exploited by authorities while mass killing and arrests continue.

Rights groups say 1,300 civilians have been killed since Syria's revolt broke out, while the government says more than 250 soldiers and police have been killed in clashes provoked by militant groups.

The United States has slapped sanctions on Assad and President Barack Obama has said the longtime Syrian ruler must either deliver political reforms or get out of the way.

But Washington has shied away from taking a more assertive stance, as it did with Libya, saying that it lacks leverage with Damascus and is still working to build international consensus on possible next steps.

Nuland's comments were more positive than most recent U.S. assessments of Syria. But she also stressed that Washington would keep pressing Damascus to stop the violence and institute democratic changes.

'BREATHING SPACE'

"President Assad knows what has to happen in Syria if that country is going to move in the right direction. Our message to him hasn't changed and won't change," she said.

"We're simply pleased to see that the opposition has been allowed some breathing space. And a key element of Syria moving in the right direction is that that continues to be the case."

Nuland said that U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, who had sought unsuccessfully to contact top Syrian officials after the protests began, was now communicating with close Assad advisors and had urged them to allow the activists' meeting to take place.

"Over the last 10 days doors have been more open among the people around Assad," Nuland said.

"Ambassador Ford has used those opportunities to state in strongest terms that the United States view is that the opposition ought to be allowed to meet," she said.

She declined to name the Syrian officials involved, but said the United States was confident they were in Assad's inner circle.

Nuland said the United States had noted "some positive moves" as authorities allow certain political protests to take place unmolested.

Nuland confirmed that Congressman Dennis Kucinich -- an anti-war Democrat who has proposed ordering Obama to remove U.S. forces from the Libya conflict -- had met Assad in Damascus on Monday, but said he was not carrying any message from the administration.

Kucinich's office issued a statement saying he was on a fact-finding trip and planned to meet democracy activists and nongovernmental organizations along with officials in both Syria and Lebanon.

(Editing by Philip Barbara)