US, France return envoys to Syria to press Assad
The United States and France said Tuesday that they were sending their ambassadors back to Syria to champion protesters facing a deadly crackdown, after pulling the envoys out due to security fears.
The two countries said US Ambassador Robert Ford and French Ambassador Eric Chevallier would aim to support the people of Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad's nine-month crackdown is said to have killed more than 4,000 people.
"We believe his presence in the country is among the most effective ways to send the message that the United States stands with the people of Syria," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement on Ford's return.
Ford's tasks will include "providing reliable reporting on the situation on the ground and engaging with the full spectrum of Syrian society on how to end the bloodshed and achieve a peaceful political transition," Toner said.
In Paris, foreign ministry deputy spokesman Romain Nadal said that the concerns that led to Chevallier's recall have not gone away but that "his work on the ground in Syria is important."
"France is more than ever at the side of the Syrian people," Nadal told AFP.
The US and French ambassadors had both angered the regime by traveling in Syria to show their support for protesters, amid official attempts to prevent international media and observers from witnessing the bloodshed firsthand.
The United States announced on October 24 that Ford had been brought back to Washington because of "credible threats." Assad supporters had tried to attack Ford and embassy staff as they visited a Syrian opposition leader in Damascus.
The French ambassador was recalled on November 16 after mobs loyal to Assad attacked France's honorary consulate in the northern city of Latakia and the detached chancery in Aleppo.
In a further sign of support, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday held talks with seven Syrian opponents of Assad in Geneva. She called for the protection of women and minorities, a key concern as Assad comes from the minority Alawite sect.
"A democratic transition includes more than removing the Assad regime," Clinton said in talks with the seven members of the dissident Syrian National Council which was formed in October.
"It means setting Syria on the path of the rule of law and protecting the universal rights of all citizens regardless of sect, or ethnicity or gender," she said.
"The Syrian opposition as represented here recognizes that Syria's minorities have legitimate questions and concerns about their future," the chief US diplomat said.
The opposition understands "that they need to be assured that Syria will be better off under a regime of tolerance and freedom that provides opportunity and respect and dignity on the basis of the consent rather than on the whims of a dictator," she added.
Syria has come under intense international pressure as Assad tries to crush the worst threat to his family's four-decade rule over the country, with the United States, European Union, Arab League and Turkey all slapping sanctions.
The Arab League has threatened to impose new sanctions unless Syria lets in monitors. In a letter late Sunday, Assad's regime said it will allow monitors but only if conditions are met.
Syria accuses "armed terrorist groups" of fueling the unrest, which comes amid a wave of street protests across the Arab world this year that have toppled authoritarian regimes in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia.
© 2011 AFP