WASHINGTON (Reuters) — Some Arab leaders have told the United States they are willing to provide safe haven to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to hasten his "inevitable" departure from power, a senior U.S. official said on Wednesday.
Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman did not identify the countries that had offered a place for Assad to go after seven months of protests against his rule in Syria.
"Almost all the Arab leaders, foreign ministers who I talk to say the same thing: Assad's rule is coming to an end. It is inevitable," Feltman, who is in charge of near eastern affairs, told a Senate panel.
"Some of these Arabs have even begun to offer Assad safe haven to encourage him to leave quickly," Feltman said. He hoped Assad and his inner circle would "head for the exits voluntarily."
Assad has shown no sign of leaving. Syrian troops shot dead eight protesters and injured 25 in Damascus earlier Wednesday, activists said, in one of the bloodiest incidents in the capital since the upraising against Assad began.
More than 60 people have been killed by the army and security forces just since last week, when Assad's government signed a peace plan sponsored by the Arab League.
Western governments led by the United States have called on Assad to leave power. Feltman said the United States would continue to support the Syrian opposition while diplomatically and financially pressuring the regime, "until Assad is gone."
U.S. and European financial sanctions were "tightening the financial noose around the (Assad) regime," he added.
But the United States did not seek militarization of the conflict: "Syria is not Libya."
Washington favored multilateral sanctions on Syria at the United Nations, Feltman said, adding that if Russia and China continued to block a Security Council resolution condemning Syria, Washington would consider other steps.
The United States favored European-led efforts to introduce a resolution in the U.N. General Assembly's human rights committee that would insist on access to Syria for internationally recognized human rights monitors, Feltman said.
He feared the transition to democracy in Syria could be long and difficult, and had no answer when Senator Richard Lugar asked who might replace Assad once he is gone.
"That's one of the real challenges, because the opposition in Syria is still divided," Feltman said.
Feltman said the U.S. Commerce Department was investigating whether Internet-blocking equipment made by a U.S. company, Blue Coat Systems Inc, had made its way to Syria, which is subject to strict U.S. trade embargoes.
Blue Coat, of Sunnyvale, California, said in a statement on its website that some of its equipment apparently had been "transferred illegally " to Syria, but that it did not know who was using the devices or exactly how. It said the company was cooperating with the U.S. government investigation. News reports have said Syria is using the equipment as part of its crackdown on protests to monitor and block Internet traffic.