The United States on Wednesday forcefully defended its decision to hit Syria's top diplomat with sanctions, ridiculing him as a "shameless tool and a mouthpiece" of President Bashar Assad and declaring him personally responsible for crimes committed in the Syrian government's five-month crackdown on popular dissent.
Using uncharacteristically undiplomatic language, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Foreign Minister Walid Moallem "remains unapologetic" even as he has played a key role in trying to hide his regime's "murder and torture" of Syrian citizens." She said he's also been instrumental in securing the assistance of Syria's ally Iran in the repression.
The harsh rhetoric came a day after the United States announced sanctions against Moallem and two other senior Syrian officials in an attempt to further pressure authorities to halt their crackdown on protesters. But whereas the explanation was general on Tuesday, with Nuland criticizing the trio for "propagating and advancing the reign of terror the Assad regime is exacting on its own people," Wednesday's remarks were different.
Some U.S.officials suggested the harsh tone of the comments may partly reflect deep personal animus toward top Syrian officials at high levels of the Obama administration. For example, they believe the State Department's top Mideast diplomat, Jeffrey Feltman, was the target of an assassination attempt while he was ambassador to Lebanon from 2004-2008, and that Syria may have been involved. The officials discussed sensitive intelligence on condition of anonymity.
Nuland said Moallem "has played a key role in trying to insulate the Assad regime from the implications of its own brutality by devoting himself strenuously to trying to hide the Assad regime's capability and the murder and torture of Syrian citizens."
Moallem "bears personal responsibility as well for the crimes committed," she said.
Comparing the situations in Syria and Libya, Nuland contrasted Moallem's loyalty to Assad despite the widespread violence against Syrians with the numerous senior officials who deserted Muammar Gadhafi. In the case of Libya, the U.S.slapped sanctions on then-Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa only to lift them when he defected and renounced his support for Gadhafi.
"We hope that those in Syria who are still clinging to an Assad future understand that there is a positive future for them in a democratic Syria, and they'll get on the right side of history," Nuland said.
But she lamented that Moallem "remains unapologetic. He remains as a shameless tool and a mouthpiece of Assad and his regime."
She said Moallem has helped Syria acquire technical and strategic support from Iran on crowd-suppression techniques and "the kinds of brutal violence that we see." She described al-Moallem's relationship with Iran as "overly cozy and dangerous," but declined to say how the U.S.knew that he was "one of the leading diplomatic and procurement links" to Tehran.
Moallem served for nearly a decade as the Syrian ambassador in Washington, before returning to positions in Syria. In July, he threatened to restrict the American and French ambassadors to the capital of Damascus after they traveled to the restive city of Hama and expressed their solidarity with protesters. The U.S.rejected his demand that all travel plans be cleared with the Syrian government.