Syria must not be allowed to descend into a sectarian war, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Tuesday, warning against “proxies or terrorist fighters” being sent in to join the conflict.
“We have to set very clear expectations about avoiding sectarian warfare,” Reuters quoted Clinton as having said while answering a question on Syria during a news conference in the South African capital Pretoria, her latest stop in a tour of Africa.
“Those who are attempting to exploit the situation by sending in proxies or terrorist fighters must realize that will not be tolerated, first and foremost by the Syrian people,” she added.
Clinton did not elaborate on her reference to “proxies or terrorist fighters” or name any particular country or group. The escalating war in Syria has increasingly divided the region along its sectarian faultline, pitting the mainly Sunni rebels, who are backed by regional Sunni-led powers Turkey and the Gulf Arab states, against Assad's government that is backed by Shi'ite Iran.
Clinton said the United States had taken note of the defection on Monday of Assad's Prime Minister Riyad Hijab and said, “That's the latest in a line of such defections and the opposition is becoming increasingly coordinated and effective. It now reportedly holds territory from northern Aleppo to the Turkish border.”
She added that the opposition gains, combined with the fracturing of some of Assad's support, made it imperative for the world to step up work on planning for a post-Assad Syria.
“We can begin talking about and planning for what happens next, the day after the regime does fall. I'm not going to put a timeline on it, I can't possibly predict it, but I know it's going to happen,” Clinton said.
“We must figure out ways to hasten the day when the bloodshed ends and the political transition begins ... We have to make very sure that state institutions stay intact,” she added.
Clinton said she intended to discuss the challenges facing Syria when she flies to Turkey for talks on Saturday.
Meanwhile on Tuesday, Assad won a pledge of support from regional ally Iran, when he received a visit from the country’s head of Supreme National Security Council, Saeed Jalili.
Assad was shown on television meeting Jalili, the first footage broadcast of him in two weeks. Jalilli said Iran would not let its close partnership with the Syrian leadership to be shaken by the uprising or external foes.
“Iran will not allow the axis of resistance, of which it considers Syria to be an essential part, to be broken in any way,” Syrian television quoted Jalili as saying.