Clinton: Syrians, Assad regime should back UN plan

By BRADLEY KLAPPER | March 21, 2012 | 2:18 PM EDT

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks with reporters at the State Department in Washington, Wednesday, March 21, 2012, following a meeting with Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration called Wednesday's statement by the U.N. Security Council on Syria a "positive step" toward bringing peace and change after a year of bloodshed, urging the Arab country's opposition groups and even President Bashar Assad to embrace the global body's plan for a cease-fire and political dialogue.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton commended the council's unanimous support of the nonbinding statement, which spells out U.N. mediator Kofi Annan's proposals, including guaranteed humanitarian access and government forces pulling back from Syrian cities and towns. More than 8,000 people have died since the Arab Spring protests reached the country last year, prompting a government crackdown and then an armed rebellion.

"The council has now spoken with one voice," said Clinton, who had lambasted Russia and China for vetoing two tougher U.N. resolutions on Syria in recent months. She said the statement demands "the beginning of a Syrian-led political process to address the legitimate aspirations of all the Syrian people that will lead to a democratic transition."

Speaking beside Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmay Rasoul, Clinton called on "all Syrians who love their country and respect its history" to embrace Annan's plan. To Assad and his regime, her message was to "take this path, commit to it, or face increasing pressure and isolation."

Clinton told reporters that she believed the council's unity would aid Annan in his discussions with the Syrian government and opposition leaders. In the meantime, the U.S. will coordinate with the United Nations on delivering humanitarian relief, she said.

Washington and its international partners have been calling on Assad to allow aid into areas hit hardest by his regime's crackdown, setting up supply depots along Syria's borders. The "Friends of Syria" group also has been trying to help opposition groups coalesce into a unified front — an effort Clinton said would continue. The group's members are meeting early next month in Istanbul.

Clinton called for the military and members of Syria's business community, two groups that have remained largely loyal to Assad, to join the chorus for an end to the violence and the start of a political transition.

"We are also calling on the Syrian military to refuse orders to fire on their fellow citizens," Clinton said.

The U.N. statement makes no mention of regime change, a sticking point with Russia, which has maintained close ties with the Syrian government. But State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said its demand of a "democratic, plural political system" was a clear indication that the four-decade Assad dynasty would have to end.

"Clearly our expectation is that we would not see President Assad continuing to run Syria at the end of a democratic transition process," she told reporters.