Cairo: Syria came under withering international criticism on Tuesday as the White House said President Bashar Assad has "lost legitimacy" and the UN Security Council unanimously condemned attacks on the US and French embassies in Damascus.
It was a sharp escalation in pressure on Assad and a sign that the Obama administration could be moving closer to calling for regime change in Syria over the violent crackdown on a four-month-old uprising. Previously, the US position on Assad was that he should lead a transition to democracy or leave.
"President Assad is not indispensable," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters in Washington on Tuesday. "We had called on him to lead this transition. He clearly has not, and he has lost legitimacy by refusing to lead the transition."
The Syrian Foreign Ministry condemned the US comments as "provocative”.
"Syria stresses that the legitimacy of its political leadership is based neither on the United States nor on others, it is exclusively from the will of the Syrian people," the statement said.
Assad has tried to crush largely peaceful protests against the government using a mixture of deadly force and promises of reform. But the revolt has only grown more defiant. Enraged by a crackdown that activists say has killed some 1,600 people, the protest movement is calling for the downfall of the regime.
Though the Syrian ruler has been shaken, he retains a base of support from the military as well as among the business elite and middle class who have benefited from his economic policies.
Tensions between the US and Syria have risen sharply over the past few days.
On Monday, hundreds of regime supporters attacked the American and French embassies in Damascus, smashing windows and spray-painting obscenities on the walls.
The French Foreign Ministry said guards fired three warning shots to disperse the demonstrators, some of whom threw rocks weighing up to 4 kilograms (nearly 9 pounds). Three French embassy employees were injured.
The attacks prompted unanimous action at the UN Security Council, where all 15 members condemned "in the strongest terms" the attacks against the embassies. The message was significant in part because it was endorsed by Russia and China — two countries that have threatened to veto a resolution that would condemn Syria`s crackdown on demonstrators.
Syria`s UN Ambassador Bashar Ja`afari accused the United States and France of distorting and exaggerating the facts surrounding Monday`s demonstrations outside their embassies.
Nonetheless, he said Syrian law enforcement authorities "made every effort to ensure the safety of those embassies" and is committed to protecting embassies and diplomats.
The attacks on the embassies were to protest separate visits last week by the American and French ambassadors to Hama, an opposition stronghold in central Syria.
Syrian authorities called the ambassadors` visits interference in the country`s internal affairs and accused the envoys of undermining Syria`s stability. The regime blames foreign conspirators and thugs for the unrest, not true reform-seekers.
French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said the embassy attacks show Assad`s hold on power is slipping, telling Europe-1 radio that "each passing day makes it more and more difficult" for the authoritarian leader to remain in power.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the US embassy in Syria was operational on Tuesday and that the Syrian Foreign Ministry returned an American flag that had been ripped down.
She said six people were arrested in connection with the attack and that they should now be subject to a free, fair and transparent judicial process.
Nuland said Ambassador Robert Ford met on Tuesday with Syria`s foreign minister to follow up on US concerns. She said a "much more collaborative tone" emerged from the meeting.
Assad`s adviser, Buthaina Shaaban, took a somewhat conciliatory tone on Tuesday evening.
"They (Americans) should acknowledge that what they did angered people in the street and made Syrians feel that they were insulted," Shaaban said, referring to the ambassadors` trips to Hama.
But she added: "We, as state and people, don`t want to cut relations with the United States."