* Ford says Assad government committed "massive" rights
* Says unwise to take Assad at his word on embracing peace
By Susan Cornwell
WASHINGTON, March 27 The U.S. ambassador to
Syria, Robert Ford, said on Tuesday he had received reports that
armed Syrian opposition groups had engaged in human rights
abuses as well as Syrian government forces, and had warned both
sides against committing such acts.
Ford also expressed skepticism about reports that Syria had
accepted the peace plan of U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan,
saying it would be best to look for action, not words from
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
"I have to tell you that my own experience with him (Assad)
is you want to see steps on the ground and not just take his
word at face value," Ford said.
The United States announced on Feb. 6 it was closing its
embassy in Syria because of the worsening security situation
there but Ford remains ambassador, working from Washington.
At a Capitol Hill hearing, Ford was asked about recent
statements by the U.S.-based group Human Rights Watch that armed
opposition groups in Syria had committed serious human rights
abuses. It said these abuses included kidnapping, detention and
torture of security force members and government supporters.
"We had reports like that last year, when some of the
fighting in Homs became really serious," Ford said.
"We raised it even in Syria when my embassy was still open.
We discussed it with some of the local revolution council
representatives - who are themselves not members of armed
groups, but certainly are in contact with them - and emphasized
that they would be held to a standard on this if they wanted
support from western countries," he said.
Ford said the United States had also raised the matter with
the Syrian National Council, a Syrian opposition coalition, and
he noted that last week the council issued a statement saying
such abuses were against what they stood for.
Ford gave no details of reports he had received about human
rights violations committed by opposition forces.
"But I have to say ... the longer the violence continues in
Syria, the worse it gets, the more we are going to see
hard-liners on both sides, who probably are not particular
defenders of human rights, gain influence and that is a real
problem, and that's why we need the transition to move more
quickly," Ford said.
In his opening remarks to the panel, the Tom Lantos Human
Rights Commission, Ford accused Assad of "massive" human rights
violations. He said he had raised the issue continually with
Assad while ambassador in Syria, starting with his first meeting
with Assad 13 months ago.
"In that discussion Assad showed little interest in human
rights, in fact he was rather annoyed that I raised it. And his
callous disregard over the past year has degenerated into
massive human rights violations that may amount to crimes
The United States supported accountability for crimes
committed by the Syrian regime, Ford said. "We are going to
support the collection of evidence" on human rights violations.
The United Nations says more than 9,000 people have been
killed in Syria's year-old uprising against Assad. Syria says
rebels have killed some 3,000 security force members and blames
the violence on "terrorist" gangs.
In addition to the charges concerning the Syrian opposition,
Human Rights Watch has also accused Assad's forces of human
rights abuses, including using human shields in northern Syria
in their efforts to crush the rebellion.
Ford said the U.S. government did not believe that "further
militarization" of the Syrian conflict was the best course and
said he favored sanctions to further isolate the Syrian regime.
Washington has already frozen Syrian assets, sanctioned
Syrian banks and banned imports of Syrian petroleum products.
Some Republican in the U.S. Senate have suggested arming the
rebels challenging Assad.
Ford said the United States wanted to talk to Arab League
countries about ways to coordinate sanctions against Syria at a
"Friends of Syria" conference on Sunday in Istanbul, which U.S.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will attend.