Clinton: Syria government responsible for 2,000 deaths

The Obama administration on Thursday stepped up condemnation of Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said more than 2,000 people have been killed in a government crackdown on four months of anti-government unrest.

"We think to date, the government is responsible for the deaths of more than 2,000 people of all ages, and the United States has worked very hard to corral and focus international opinion to take steps toward a unified response to the atrocities that are occurring," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a news conference Thursday with visiting Canadian foreign minister John Baird.

"We are seized of the concerns posed by what is happening in Syria," Clinton said, vowing the U.S. would continue to try to marshal a "much louder, more effective chorus of voices" to pressure the Assad regime.

"It has become very clear around the world that Assad's actions place Syria and the region on a very dangerous path," White House spokesman Jay Carney told journalists at the White House press briefing Thursday, adding: "Assad is on his way out ... We all need to be thinking about the day after Assad, because Syria's 23 million citizens already are."

The United Nations Security Council on Wednesday issued a presidential statement condemning the "widespread violations of human rights and the use of force against civilians by the Syrian authorities." And emerging powers on the council--India, Brazil, Turkey and South Africa, which have previously expressed reluctance to authorize another Libya-style military intervention in Syria--are sending a delegation to Damascus to investigate human rights concerns, diplomats said.

Yet even as international condemnation of the Assad regime builds daily and economic and diplomatic efforts increase, the endgame in Syria is anything but clear. What would it take to topple Assad?

Syria analysts say regime change in the country will be a protracted and likely violent affair--beyond the current bloodshed. They assessed that given the country's sectarian composition and the deep allegiances to the Assad regime by the mostly Alawite commanders of Syria's security forces -- it's unlikely that Assad would be ousted quickly. And what might follow is a great unknown.

"The key here is to drive a wedge between the regime and those who still have a vested interest in the regime but are fearful of what might come afterwards," said Robert Danin, a former State Department Middle East official, in a call with journalists Thursday arranged by the Council on Foreign Relations.

"The administration position [toward Assad] is now hardening substantially," said Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told The Envoy in an interview Thursday. In particular, Tabler said, the Syrian regime gets about one third of its revenues from oil exports to Europe; thus targeted energy sanctions could be quite effective.

But Tabler acknowledged that while measures such as energy sanctions could put a real squeeze on Damascus, the ethnic composition of Assad's praetorian guard complicates the calculations of those seeking vulnerabilities in the regime.

"Unlike [Egypt's Hosni] Mubarak who came down in 18 days, it takes longer for Assad to fall because of the way the regime is structured," Tabler said. Assad is a member of Syria's Alawite minority, as are the commanders of the Syrian military and security forces. Thus, in Syria, "you don't have an autonomous military who can oust the ruling family," as they had in Egypt and Tunisia. "It will take longer."

State Department spokesman Mark Toner asked Wednesday what Washington envisioned as the "ideal endgame" in Syria, said the question should not be what Washington wants but "what the Syrian people want out of this, and they're looking for change," he told journalists at the State Department press conference Wednesday.

"They have been out protesting for weeks and months now under tremendous duress, facing tanks, facing security forces every day to voice their opposition to the regime," Toner continued. "And thus far, the regime's only met that with continued violence and continued oppression. So what they're looking for is change, democratic change. That's their endgame."