The Obama administration appeared caught off guard Tuesday by Syria's sudden acceptance of a U.N. peace plan, wanting to support diplomacy but wary that President Bashar Assad's reform-averse regime may use its apparent willingness to compromise as cover to press on with a year-long political crackdown.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton cautiously welcomed the Syrian government's endorsement of the six-point plan that calls for an immediate cease-fire with rebels and an eventual democratic transition. She said it was an important step toward peace, but stressed that Assad now has to deliver.
"Given Assad's history of overpromising and under-delivering, that commitment must now be matched by immediate action," Clinton told reporters in Washington. "We will judge Assad's sincerity and seriousness by what he does, not by what he says. If he is ready to bring this dark chapter in Syria's history to a close, he could prove it by immediately ordering regime forces to stop firing and begin withdrawing from populated areas."
Clinton said Assad must also implement the rest of U.N. envoy Kofi Annan's plan, which includes allowing international aid workers unfettered access, releasing political prisoners, granting foreign news media unobstructed access and beginning a real political dialogue that can lead to democracy. Her hesitation reflected the Syrian leader's previous promises to meet the demands protesters and later Arab League monitors with democratic reforms that never were enacted.
Fighting persisted in Syria even after an Annan spokesman reported Syria's acceptance of the U.N. plan. The United Nations says more than 8,000 people have died since the Arab Spring protests reached Syria last year, prompting government repression of Assad's opponents and then an armed rebellion. The increased militarization of the conflict has led to fears of an outright civil war and some countries in the region are pushing for a foreign intervention to aid the rebels.
Diplomatic efforts thus far to solve the crisis have failed, and Washington and its allies are skeptical of Assad's intentions. They say he has repeatedly reneged on reform pledges and no longer has legitimacy as a leader.
But after spending months publicly badgering Syria's ally Russia to acquiesce to U.N. mediation, the U.S. is in a position where it has to give diplomacy a chance. It also has few alternatives, considering the administration has removed military options from the table for now. Moscow would oppose any U.N. mandate for countries to provide weapons to the Syrian rebels or elsewise engage in an armed intervention, anyhow.
Speaking beside Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet, Clinton said the U.S. and its international partners would work to disarm the Syrian opposition in the event that Assad lives up to his commitments. She said intensive work would take place in the coming days as the United States and some 60 other countries prepare for Sunday's "Friends of the Syrian People" meeting in Istanbul.
The Syrian opposition "must clearly demonstrate a commitment to including all Syrians and respecting the rights of all Syrians, and we are going to be pushing them very hard to present such a vision," Clinton said.