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Mark Toner, State Department: Syrians Should Reject Amnesty Offer

David Gollust

November 10, 2011

The United States Wednesday again advised opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad not to accept a government offer of amnesty if they surrender weapons. Syria alleges the stance signals U.S. support for armed insurrection, which the United States denies.

The initial U.S. admonition against the amnesty offer late last week drew an angry response from the Syrian Foreign Ministry.

But the State Department reaffirmed its position Wednesday, saying opponents would be “unwise” to accept the offer, given the Assad government’s brutal track record.

The Damascus government, in tandem with its nominal acceptance of an Arab League peace plan for the country, last week said it was giving armed protestors a week to turn themselves in along with their weapons.

The government said those who surrendered and had not killed anyone would be released in a short time.

In a dismissive comment last Friday, a State Department spokeswoman said she would not advise anyone to turn himself in to Damascus authorities - drawing a Syrian charge the United States was encouraging sedition murder and terrorism.

Briefing reporters Wednesday, State Department Deputy Spokesman Mark Toner said the United States does not condone violence in Syria and stands by its advice on the amnesty.

“We believe it would be unwise for regime opponents to turn themselves in, quite simply put, given the Assad regime’s track record of lawlessness, torture and thuggery against the opposition," said Toner. "We don’t believe that it’s in anyone’s interest to turn themselves in voluntarity to the Assad regime.”

Toner said the hostile Syrian reaction to the U.S. comments was part of an effort by Damascus authorities to inject the United States into a conflict that he said is really between the Syrian government and its own people.

Human rights groups say some 3,500 civilians, mostly peaceful demonstrators, have been killed in Syrian unrest since the pro-democratic campaign began in March. The Assad government says armed groups are driving the unrest and that hundreds of security personnel have been killed.

In U.S. Senate Sub-Committee testimony Wednesday, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman said the United States intends to work with friends and allies to tighten political and economic pressure on President Assad, while supporting Syria’s non-violent opposition.

He said the Syrian leader, head of what he termed a “family-led mafia that’s hijacked the state,” is trying to turn the peaceful protest movement into an insurgency.

“He knows how to deal with violence. He just uses violence against violence," said Feltman. "What confounds him is this phenomenon of protestors yelling ‘peaceful, peaceful,’ of shopkeepers closing their shops in solidarity with the protestors. That’s what really puts Bashar al-Assad in a bind. And that’s why we’ve been encouraging the opposition, despite the tremendous brutality they’re facing, to keep to the peaceful principles to which they’ve subscribed.”

The State Department’s chief Middle East expert said the Syrian leader has become a regional pariah and can’t last in office indefinitely.

Feltman said U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, recently withdrawn from Syria over security threats, will return to his post soon.

Ford has drawn the ire of Syrian authorities for meeting with Syrian opposition figures and paying an unauthorized visit to the protest hotbed city of Hama last July.

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