Syria consultative meeting recommends amendment of constitution, Baath Party hegemony, dialogue with opposition

UN Security Council condemns attacks on U.S., French embassies in Damascus

Arab League chief meets Syria’s Assad, criticizes Clinton’s remarks

Obama toughens rhetoric on Assad as news sanctions loom

Security forces crackdown on Syria intellectuals, artists

The consultative meeting of Syria on Tuesday discussed constitutional amendments, including the article providing that the Baath party is the leader of state and society, and found that many articles need revising.

The meeting said in a statement that a legal political committee should be formed to review all items of the constitution and present suggestions to work out a new modern constitution which can guarantee the social justice, multi-party system, and the basic rights of human beings.

The meeting has also discussed the proposed drafts of laws of elections, parties and media, and agreed to ask the commissions that were recently formed to prepare the draft laws in order to put forward the final version for endorsement as soon as possible, according to the statement.

The statement said what has been presented were merely "documents and general directions that would be put forward to the national dialogue conference."

Meanwhile, the participants called for an immediate release of all political prisoners, stressing that the right of expression should be guaranteed.

The meeting, presided over by Syrian Vice-President Farouk al- Sharaa, was a prelude for the national dialogue conference that would supposedly lay foundations for the transition of Syria towards a democratic state.

The nearly four-month unrest in Syria has sparked the need for dialogue to find an outlet. However, the opposition activists, most of whom live outside Syria, said it's too late for any effort to bridge the gap between the government and the protesters.

The activists said the security forces have killed more than 1, 400 people across Syria since the beginning of the unrest in mid- March, while the authorities dispute the toll, putting the blame for the unrest on gangs and armed groups that aim to foment a sectarian strife in the country.

The consultative meeting of Syria on Tuesday discussed constitutional amendments, including the article providing that the Baath party is the leader of state and society, and found that many articles need revising.

The meeting said in a statement that a legal political committee should be formed to review all items of the constitution and present suggestions to work out a new modern constitution which can guarantee the social justice, multi-party system, and the basic rights of human beings.

The meeting has also discussed the proposed drafts of laws of elections, parties and media, and agreed to ask the commissions that were recently formed to prepare the draft laws in order to put forward the final version for endorsement as soon as possible, according to the statement.

The statement said what has been presented were merely "documents and general directions that would be put forward to the national dialogue conference."

Meanwhile, the participants called for an immediate release of all political prisoners, stressing that the right of expression should be guaranteed.

The meeting, presided over by Syrian Vice-President Farouk al- Sharaa, was a prelude for the national dialogue conference that would supposedly lay foundations for the transition of Syria towards a democratic state.

The nearly four-month unrest in Syria has sparked the need for dialogue to find an outlet. However, the opposition activists, most of whom live outside Syria, said it's too late for any effort to bridge the gap between the government and the protesters.

The activists said the security forces have killed more than 1, 400 people across Syria since the beginning of the unrest in mid- March, while the authorities dispute the toll, putting the blame for the unrest on gangs and armed groups that aim to foment a sectarian strife in the country.

The U.N. Security Council on Tuesday condemned "in the strongest terms" this week's attacks by demonstrators against the U.S. and French embassies in Damascus.

A statement by the 15-nation body read to media by Germany's U.N. Ambassador Peter Wittig, this month's council president, called on Syrian authorities to protect diplomatic property and personnel.

Western officials say Monday's attacks were carried out by loyalists of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The attacks followed protests against a visit by U.S. and French envoys in Damascus to the city of Hama, now the focus of a four-month-old uprising against Assad.

"The members of the Security Council condemn in the strongest terms the attacks against embassies in Damascus," the Security Council statement said. "In this context, the members of the Security Council call on the Syrian authorities to protect diplomatic property and personnel."

But within minutes of Wittig reading out the statement, Syria's U.N. Ambassador accused the United States and France of distorting and exaggerating the facts about the attacks.

The envoy, Bashar Ja'afari, told reporters that Syria had sought to protect the missions and that some demonstrators involved in Monday's events had been arrested and would be brought to justice.

The United States said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had lost legitimacy and was losing his grip on power, and France called Tuesday for a Security Council meeting after Assad loyalists attacked the U.S. and French embassies in Damascus.

Denunciations of Assad from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and French Prime Minister Francois Fillon marked those countries' sharpest condemnation yet of the Syrian president, struggling to put down four months of revolts that have swept the country and threatened his 11-year rule.

"From our perspective, he has lost legitimacy, he has failed to deliver on the promises he's made, he has sought and accepted aid from the Iranians as to how to repress his own people," Clinton said, adding Assad was "not indispensable."

"We have absolutely nothing invested in him remaining in power," she said in an appearance with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.

Fillon said the Security Council's silence on Syria was "unbearable," adding that China and Russia were blocking the adoption of a U.N. resolution, which was unacceptable.

France is seeking a U.N. condemnation of the attacks on the embassies and Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said Washington had also pushed for a council meeting which should happen later Tuesday.

"We hope the Security Council will condemn the embassy attacks," he said. "We want the Security Council to speak out on what has happened."

Syria promptly denounced Clinton's remarks, with the state news agency SANA calling them "provocative" and aimed at "continuing the internal tension."

"These statements are another proof of the U.S.'s flagrant intervention in Syria's internal affairs. The legitimacy of Syria's leadership is not based on the United States or others, it stems from the will of the Syrian People," it said.

Clinton spoke after crowds broke into the U.S. embassy on Monday and tore down plaques and security guards using live ammunition drove crowds away from the French embassy.

The attacks followed protests against a visit by U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford and French envoy Eric Chevallier to Hama, now the focus of the uprising against Assad.

Inspired by the protests in Egypt and Tunisia which unseated its leaders, tens of thousands of Syrians took to the streets in March calling for more freedoms. The protests were also triggered by anger and frustration at corruption, poverty and repression.

Assad has responded to protests with a mixture of force and promises of reforms. He sent his troops and tanks to cities and towns to crush protests. Thousands of people were arrested.

Western governments have condemned Assad's violence against protesters, but their practical response has so far been limited to sanctions against top officials, a far cry from the military intervention against Muammar Gaddafi in Libya.

Britain condemned the attacks on the embassies, saying Syrian authorities had failed to carry out their responsibilities under international law to respect diplomatic missions.

"This is an issue of direct concern to the UK and to all countries with diplomatic missions in Syria. All EU member states in Syria are today seeking urgent assurances from the Syrian Foreign Ministry," British Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt said.

The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama has steadily toughened its rhetoric on Assad as Syrian security forces crack down on pro-democracy protests. But it had previously refrained from calling on Assad to step down as it did following protests against longtime leaders in Egypt and Libya.

Washington has imposed targeted sanctions on Assad and members of his inner circle, and has said it is working with its allies to build international consensus for further steps to put pressure on his government.

Clinton's comments marked a significant sharpening of U.S. criticism of Assad, whose security forces have waged an increasingly brutal crackdown against pro-democracy protesters.

Analysts were skeptical that the sharper rhetoric alone would rattle Assad, who retains the support of Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah, as well as substantial portions of the minority Alawite community from which his family springs.

"If the Americans think he has lost legitimacy, this doesn't mean he has lost legitimacy, it means the Americans think he has lost legitimacy," Rami Khouri, a political analyst based in neighboring Lebanon, told Reuters.

"When Ford visited Hama, the dynamic changed. Clinton's remarks have simply raised the temperature," he added.

Syria said Ford sought to incite protests. The State Department denied that and said Ford toured Hama to show solidarity with residents facing security crackdown.

Hama, a city of 700,000 people, was the scene of a 1982 massacre which came to symbolize the ruthless rule of the late President Hafez al-Assad and has staged some of the biggest protests in 14 weeks of demonstrations against his son Bashar.

Human rights groups say at least 1,400 civilians have been killed since an uprising began in March against Assad's autocratic rule, posing the biggest threat to his leadership since he succeeded his father.

The Arab League's secretary general visited Syria's president on Wednesday and denounced "foreign interference" in the embattled country's affairs.

The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency said Nabil al-Araby sat down with President Bashar al-Assad and discussed a wide range of issues, including domestic reform efforts, the ferment in Libya, and the Palestinians.

Al-Araby also repeated the sentiments of Syrian officials who are upset with the United States and other nations for getting involved in Syria's domestic affairs.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton slammed the regime Monday after the U.S. and French embassies were attacked and said al-Assad "has lost legitimacy" and "has failed to deliver on the promises he's made."

The Syrian government also criticized a visit last week to the city of Hama by U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, claiming that the envoy was inciting protests.

"Al-Araby voiced the Arab League full rejection to all bids of foreign interference in the Syrian Affairs, and support to the bulk of reforms made in Syria, hoping that Syria would emerge stronger given its pivotal role in the region," the SANA report said.

The government, under fire internationally and from protesters for its tough crackdown against demonstrators over the last four months, has said it is embarking on reforms and is supportive of a national dialogue process.

Earlier, SANA reported a fire at an oil pipeline in northeastern Syria. The incident took place Tuesday in Deir Ezzor province, which borders Iraq, an official source at the Oil Ministry said Wednesday, according to the Syrian Arab News Agency.

There was no immediate word of casualties or damage, and the SANA report did not indicate that the incident was linked to anti-government ferment.

Syria has endured four months of anti-government demonstrations, particularly in the more populous southern and western regions, but there have been protests in northeastern towns as well.

The source said flames spread to a wide area before they were extinguished and pointed out that production didn't stop and oil was transferred through other alternative pipelines.

Investigators working to determine the cause believe the fire could have been caused by the burning of grass or from a leak in a part of the pipeline under maintenance, SANA said.

U.S. President Barack Obama said on Tuesday that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had "lost legitimacy" for failing to lead a democratic transition, but stopped short of explicitly calling on him to step down.

It was the strongest language Obama has used against the Syrian ruler over his harsh crackdown on protests and echoed comments by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton a day earlier.

"I think that increasingly you're seeing President Assad lose legitimacy in the eyes of his people," Obama told CBS News in an interview. "He has missed opportunity after opportunity to present a genuine reform agenda."

White House spokesman Jay Carney said Assad "is not indispensable" and urged him to lead a transition to democracy.

The sharpened rhetoric follows an assault by Assad loyalists on the U.S. and French embassies in Damascus, which drew strong condemnation by the United Nations Security Council.

Pressed on why Obama has not gone further and urged Assad to leave office, Carney told reporters: "There's really a growing consensus among the Syrian people that this transition needs to take place and that President Assad is not going to lead it ... The Syrian people will, should, be able to decide their own future."

The Obama administration has reacted cautiously to the Syrian government crackdown after working for the past two years to try to woo Damascus away from its alliance with Tehran, and remains mindful of the limits of its influence.

Aside from international denunciation, the only concrete response to the violence has been U.S. and European Union sanctions against Assad, family members and aides.

Washington has also been worried about instability on Israel's borders and wants to avoid another military entanglement in the Muslim world, where it is involved in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a NATO air campaign in Libya.

But with Monday's assault on the U.S. embassy by what the White House called "thugs," U.S. patience appears to be wearing thin with Assad, who has been trying for four months to stamp out a broad popular revolt with troops and tanks.

"We've made that clear to the Syrian government, that it is their responsibility ... to provide security for and to maintain security for foreign embassies," Carney said.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the U.S. ambassador to Damascus, Robert Ford, had met with Syria's deputy foreign minister for talks with "a much more collaborative tone."

Syria has accused the United States and France of distorting and exaggerating facts about the embassy attacks.

But Nuland said the United States would continue to discuss with allies possible further steps against Syria, including sanctions on its oil and gas sectors and potential referral to the International Criminal Court over the crackdown.

Syrian government troops don't appear to be anywhere near halting the crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators.

Only days after a government-sponsored "national dialogue" meeting on reform in Damascus, Syrian security forces killed at least eight people over the course of 24 hours on Wednesday and Thursday and arrested scores, including artists, actors and writers, according to activist accounts.

The Local Coordination Committees in Syria, a Syrian activist network tracking anti-regime protests, said seven people were killed Wednesday in the nation's northwestern province of Idlib as Syrian army troops carried out military operations there, while another man was shot dead Thursday in the eastern city of Dair Alzour near the Iraqi border during a protest.

LCCSyria said 7,000 people took to the streets in anti-government rallies in Dair Alzour on Thursday and that shop owners had gone on a general strike in solidarity with the demonstrators.

Meanwhile, the Damascus district of Medan became the scene of violence and chaos on Wednesday night when security forces and pro-regime elements cracked down on a pro-democracy protest by Syrian intellectuals, artists, and actors, arresting several rallygoers, according to eyewitnesses and activist reports.

According to a news alert posted on the website of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based group, Syrian security forces arrested 30 of the intellectuals who had signed up for the protest.

Amateur video footage uploaded to the Internet and purportedly filmed at the demonstration showed a prominent presence of security and riot police on the scene. Protesters sang Syria's national anthem, then marched down a street while shouting "the Syrian people is one -- one, one, one."

It didn't take long, however, before security forces intervened and violence erupted.

One eyewitness told The Times that security forces and pro-regime thugs known as Shabiha beat both women and men, some of whom cried out "peaceful, peaceful."

According to LCCSyria, those arrested at the rally include Syrian actress Mai Skaf, the twin movie actors Mohammad and Ahmad Malas, authors Yam Mashhadi and Rima Flaihan, and actor Nidal Hassan.

News of the crackdown on the artists' and intellectuals' demonstration in Damascus soon spread across the country, prompting protesters in some places to take to the streets in solidarity rallies with those arrested.

"Mai and Rima: you're the apple of our eyes, each one of you worth a hundred," demonstrators in the southern city of Daraa reportedly chanted in reference to the arrested actress and author. They also waved signs saying "Whoever arrests intellect arrests the world" and "Down with the regime of ignorance."

Several pleas for the release of the detained Syrian intellectuals appeared Thursday on Facebook.

Syrian activists, meanwhile, called for nationwide general strikes Thursday and have dubbed Friday's expected nationwide rallies "Friday of detainees of freedom."

"For freedom for the detainees, for the dignity of the free," read a slogan for the scheduled protests on a banner posted on the Syrian Revolution 2011 Facebook page -- a driving force behind demonstrations against Syrian ruler Bashar Assad.