Clinton blasts 'brutal' crackdown by Syria's Assad

In some of her strongest remarks yet on Syria, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham said Thursday the brutal crackdown against protesters demonstrated the government's weakness, though she stopped short of saying President Bashar Assad must quit.

Syrian soldiers and tanks surrounded the city of Hama, which Assad's father laid waste to in 1982 to stamp out an earlier uprising, an activist said. Government forces also used clubs to disperse 2,000 demonstrators on a northern university campus.

Assad, who inherited power from his father in 2000, is trying to crush an uprising that exploded nearly two months ago and is now posing the gravest threat to his family's 40-year ruling dynasty. The level of violence is intensifying as forces move into more volatile areas, and the United States called the crackdown "barbaric."

Clinton, in Greenland for talks about Arctic cooperation, repeated U.S. denunciations of the crackdown, which she said has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of people since March.

"They engage in unlawful detention, torture and the denial of medical care to wounded persons. There may be some who think that this is a sign of strength. But treating one's own people in this way is in fact a sign of remarkable weakness," she said.

The United States has edged closer to calling for Assad to go, after abandoning hope that he would make good on repeated promises of political reform.

Clinton said Syria's future can only be secured by a government that reflects the popular will of its people. She added a warning about Syria's neighbor Iran, which has sought to expand its influence in Syria as some of Assad's global support peels away.

"Relying on Iran as your best friend and your only strategic ally is not a viable way forward," Clinton said.

Assad retains considerable international backing despite the protests, and there are no plans for an international intervention such as the U.N.-authorized no-fly zone over Libya.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Embassy in Damascus hit out at Syrian authorities for allowing anti-American protests outside the embassy compound in the city while attacking pro-reform demonstrators. It said for the third time this week, protesters had gathered at the embassy on Thursday.

"The United States respects the right of these demonstrators to express themselves in peaceful marches," the embassy said in a statement, noting that Syrian security forces were using clubs and batons to break up peaceful student protests in the city of Aleppo.

"The United States believes there should be no double standard. The Syrian government should grant all Syrians the right to express themselves peacefully."