U.S. calls Arab League Syria plan "best opportunity"
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States said on Tuesday an Arab League peace plan for Syria might bring results, but that would depend on Damascus upholding its side of the bargain and eventually ditching President Bashar al-Assad.
Syria agreed on Monday to allow Arab states to monitor its compliance with the Arab League proposal, which is aimed at halting a government crackdown on protests that U.N. officials say has killed more than 5,000 civilians.
The U.S. State Department said the Arab plan - which calls on Syria to end violence, withdraw security forces and release political prisoners while allowing international monitors to measure compliance - could be one way out of the impasse.
"This Arab League proposal, we believe, offers the best opportunity to end the violence immediately so that Syria can move on," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
But she said Washington believed Syria would still need to hold "real dialogue about a democratic future, which we don't think Assad is capable of being part of."
"Our view has not changed: that Assad needs to step down, that he is not the man to lead his country into the future."
Syrian authorities blame armed gangs for the violence and say 1,100 soldiers and police have been killed.
The measured U.S. tone on the Arab League proposal marked a slight shift from earlier statements from Washington, which had cast doubt on the utility of discussions with the Assad government.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke on Tuesday with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov of Russia - which has resisted efforts to get tough on Assad, a longtime ally - to discuss both the Arab peace plan and efforts to craft a U.N. Security Council resolution on the next steps to take on Syria's crisis, Nuland said.
Nuland said the Arab League had told Washington it hoped to start deploying monitors by the end of this week, with as many as 300-400 in place by the middle of January.
She said the United States would support this, but only if the plan achieved the desired results.
"The Syrians have been breaking a lot of promises recently, so we want to see these monitors get in and be able to start their business," she said.
"They have to be able to go freely where they want to go without being hindered, without any false pretexts of security concerns etc, without being intimidated by Syrian security forces. They have to be able to talk to whomever they want. They have to be able to get their reports out," she said.
Russia last week presented the U.N. Security Council with its own draft resolution stepping up its criticism of the bloodshed in Syria, although western governments have said the draft remains too weak to win their support.
Nuland said that Clinton and Lavrov agreed to keep working on the Russian draft, saying the United States believed it needed to be further strengthened.
"So we're on two tracks now: continuing to work on the resolution in New York and then testing to see whether the Syrians are serious about implementing their commitments to the Arab League," Nuland said.
"We will see what the U.N. Security Council resolution needs to do as this moves forward."
(Reporting By Andrew Quinn; Editing by Eric Walsh)