By Mariam Karouny
BEIRUT (Reuters) - The United States and France heightened pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and said he had lost legitimacy and was losing his grip on power, after Assad loyalists attacked their embassies in Damascus.
The denunciations from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and French Prime Minister Francois Fillon marked those countries' sharpest condemnation yet of Assad, struggling to put down four months of revolts that have swept the country and threatened his 11-year rule.
"From our perspective, he has lost legitimacy, he has failed to deliver on the promises he's made, he has sought and accepted aid from the Iranians as to how to repress his own people," Clinton told reporters in Washington, adding Assad was "not indispensable."
"We have absolutely nothing invested in him remaining in power," she said in an appearance with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
Syria promptly denounced Clinton's remarks, with the state news agency SANA calling them "provocative" and aimed at "continuing the internal tension."
"These statements are another proof of the U.S.'s flagrant intervention in Syria's internal affairs. The legitimacy of Syria's leadership is not based on the United States or others, it stems from the will of the Syrian People," it said.
Clinton spoke after pro-Assad crowds broke into the U.S. embassy on Monday and tore down plaques and security guards using live ammunition drove crowds away from the French embassy.
The attacks followed protests against a visit by U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford and French envoy Eric Chevallier to Hama, now the focus of the uprising against Assad.
Inspired by the protests in Egypt and Tunisia which unseated its leaders, tens of thousands of Syrians took to the streets in March calling for more freedoms. The protests were also triggered by anger and frustration at corruption, poverty and repression.
Assad has responded to protests with a mixture of force and promises of reforms. He sent his troops and tanks to cities and towns to crush protests. Thousands of people were arrested.
Western governments have condemned Assad's violence against protesters, but their practical response has so far been limited to sanctions against top officials, a far cry from the military intervention against Muammar Gaddafi in Libya.
The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama has steadily toughened its rhetoric on Assad as Syrian security forces crack down on pro-democracy protests. But it had previously refrained from calling on Assad to step down as it did following protests against longtime leaders in Egypt and Libya.
Washington has imposed targeted sanctions on Assad and members of his inner circle, and has said it is working with its allies to build international consensus for further steps to put pressure on his government.
Clinton's comments marked a significant sharpening of U.S. criticism of Assad, whose security forces have waged an increasingly brutal crackdown against pro-democracy protesters.
Analysts were skeptical that the sharper rhetoric alone would rattle Assad, who retains the support of Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah, as well as substantial portions of the minority Alawite community from which his family springs.
"If the Americans think he has lost legitimacy, this doesn't mean he has lost legitimacy, it means the Americans think he has lost legitimacy," Rami Khouri, a political analyst based in neighboring Lebanon, told Reuters.
"When Ford visited Hama, the dynamic changed. Clinton's remarks have simply raised the temperature," he added.
INCREASED DIPLOMATIC TENSION
Syria said Ford sought to incite protests. The State Department denied that and said Ford toured Hama to show solidarity with residents facing security crackdown.
Hama, a city of 700,000 people, was the scene of a 1982 massacre which came to symbolize the ruthless rule of the late President Hafez al-Assad and has staged some of the biggest protests in 14 weeks of demonstrations against his son Bashar.
France condemned Syria on Tuesday and said it wanted the U.N. council to speak out on the events of the last two days in Syria.
It said the council's failure to speak out against the violent repression of protests in Syria was becoming "unbearable."
Human rights groups say at least 1,400 civilians have been killed since an uprising began in March against Assad's autocratic rule, posing the biggest threat to his leadership since he succeeded his father.
France has led Western attempts to pass a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Syria's hierarchy for cracking down on protesters.
On Tuesday, Fillon said China and Russia were blocking adoption of a U.N. resolution condemning the crackdown, and that this was not acceptable.
"President Assad has gone way beyond the limit. The U.N. Security Council's silence on Syria is becoming unbearable," Fillon said in an interview on Europe 1 radio.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero demanded the council respond to the attacks, telling a news conference: "We want the Security Council to speak out on what has happened."
(Additional reporting by Oliver Holmes, Writing by Joseph Logan, Editing by Samia Nakhoul)