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Daily Israel Report

Clinton Warns Assad Squandering 'Last Chance'

As fighting continues in Syria despite a UN-backed ceasefire, the top US diplomat threatens 'tougher measures' on al-Assad
By Gabe Kahn
First Publish: 4/19/2012, 4:00 PM

Hillary Clinton
Hillary Clinton
Reuters

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Wednesday warned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of tougher measures if he squanders his “last chance.”

“It is obviously quite concerning” Clinton said in Brussels, that the “guns of the Assad regime are once again firing in Homs, Idlib and elsewhere.”

The continued onslaught by Assad's forces comes despite Damascus' agreement to implement a ceasefire as the first step towards implementing a UN-backed peace plan.

On Wednesday – even as UN observers tasked with monitoring a ceasefire deploy in Syria – at least 32 people were killed by army gunfire across Syria today, mostly in Idlib and Homs.

“We are at a crucial turning point,” Clinton said on the eve of a high-level meeting in Paris designed to consider further pressure on Assad.

France said that 14 foreign ministers, including Clinton, would attend a meeting on Syria in Paris on Thursday to send a “strong” message to Assad’s regime to implement the Annan plan.

UN-Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan brokered a peace plan calling for the withdrawal of heavy weapons and troops from Syrian population centers, humanitarian assistance, the release of prisoners and free movement and access for journalists.

Either the international community succeeds in “pushing forward” Annan’s six-point plan or “we see Assad squandering his last chance before additional measures have to be considered,” Clinton said.

She talked of increased sanctions but declined to answer a question on whether it was fine for other countries to arm the rebels − a stand taken by Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Her remarks came after sharp criticism that the US posture towards Syria was a tacit acceptance of Assad's continued grip on power.

Despite repeated US demands that Syrian President Bashar Assad step down, the Obama administration's policy maintains Assad has a firm hold on power and that military force would be required to oust him.

Nonetheless, while the US has edged towards supplying the rebel Syria Free Army with communications gear and other nonlethal aid, but has ruled out arming the rebels or intervening militarily.

SFA forces are poorly armed, underfunded, and disorganized as sectarian divisions continue to fuel discord as the civilian death toll in Assad's brutal 13-month crackdown exceeds 9,100.

Meanwhile, an advanced party of 30 unarmed military observers started arriving in Damascus Sunday, but has not yet started monitoring a cessation of hostilities that officially started last week.

The US ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, said the Security Council is awaiting reports from UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon before discussing whether to send a full 250 member observer mission to Syria.

“We have a very small number of observers now on the ground and it seems that small number is having difficulty with the freedom that we all expected and that is required,” Rice said.

The Security Council insists “that there needs to be a sustained cessation of violence, there has to be the ability for this advanced contingent to be able to operate and move freely and unimpeded,” she added.

“I think there is reason on both counts to be concerned that thus far those conditions are not in place.”

Syria's currency has plummeted as Damascus burns through its cash reserves due to a drop of roughly 30% in oil sales under several rounds of Western sanctions.

Damascus has, it was reported Wednesday, begun to seek private buyers for its strategic gold reserves to offset its shortfalls.