WASHINGTON: US President Barack Obama on Tuesday decried continued and “unacceptable” levels of violence in Syria and pledged to redouble international efforts to force President Bashar al-Assad to step down.
Obama also thanked King Abdullah II of Jordan in the Oval Office for being the first Arab leader to call for Assad to go, after talks that also focused on Jordanian efforts to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
President Obama said he and the king discussed regional issues including Iran and Iraq and praised his guest for being “ahead of the curve” in his efforts to promote political reform inside Jordan.
But he said the violence in Syria and the crackdown on demonstrators by Assad’s armed forces had been “uppermost” in their minds.
“We continue to see unacceptable levels of violence inside that country,” Obama said.
“We will continue to consult very closely with Jordan to create the kind of international pressure and environment that encourage the current Syrian regime to step aside so that a more democratic process and transition can take place inside of Syria.”
Obama also praised the king for joining international calls for Assad to go in November and for taking part in Arab League efforts to mitigate the crisis.
“His Majesty was the first Arab leader to publicly call on President Assad to step down, in the face of the terrible brutality we’ve been seeing inside of Syria,” Obama said.
“I want to thank him for his willingness to stand up.”
Fears of a civil war or a political implosion in Syria as the government cracks down on protestors have led to fears of knock-on instability in Jordan, a reliable ally of the West.
The United Nations estimates more than 5,000 people have been killed in the crackdown since protests against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime began in mid-March.
The president also praised Jordan’s leadership in seeking to revive direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, despite slim hopes for a breakthrough.
“We talked about the importance of continuing to consult closely together to encourage the Palestinians and the Israelis to come back to the table and negotiate in a serious fashion,” Obama said.
Israel and the Palestinians have held three exploratory meetings in Amman in an effort to restart talks which have been stalled since September 2010.
But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday the two sides were at odds over a three-month deadline set by the international Middle East Quartet for progress on territorial and security issues.
He said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat wanted to abandon talks due to take place on January 26.
Both parties have said the Amman meetings did not constitute a return to direct talks, although they did exchange position papers when they first met on January 3.
King Abdullah recognized that the talks were at an early stage.
“We have to keep our fingers crossed and hope that we can bring the Israelis and Palestinians out of the impasse that we’re facing,” he said.
“We’re in coordination on a regular basis with (Obama) as well as with his administration.”
King Abdullah reacted to protests in Jordan at the height of regional Arab Spring protests by sacking his cabinet, reinstating some subsidies and seeking to speed up political reforms.
Obama recognized King Abdullah’s position was precarious amid deep regional political turmoil.
“The last time we met, the face of the region was very different,” he said.
“Since that time, you’ve seen new governments emerging in Egypt, in Libya — transitions taking place and a new government in Tunisia, transitions taking place in Yemen and now obviously great volatility in Syria.
“Throughout this period we consulted closely with the Jordanians, and we value the advice and the thoughtful leadership that His Majesty provides.”