US secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton said on Tuesday that Syrian President Bashar Assad fits the definition of a war criminal for the violence he has unleashed on his people.
Testifying before two Senate committees, Clinton was pressed about the months of strife in Syria that a UN official said on Tuesday had killed more than 7,500 people and several lawmakers described as a civil war.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, who has urged that the United States arm the rebels challenging Assad and suggested that the international community might consider the Syrian president a war criminal.
"I think that based on definitions of war criminal and crimes against humanity, there would be an argument to be made that he would fit into that category," Clinton told the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations.
She stopped short of calling for the international community to make that designation or to level charges, saying such a step "limits options to persuade leaders perhaps to step down from power."
Graham said he hoped the world community could persuade Assad to leave eventually.
"I just don't know how to define 'eventually' right now," Clinton said.
At the White House, spokesman Jay Carney reiterated the administration's opposition to arming the rebels.
"Now is not the time to further militarize the situation in Syria," Carney told reporters. "We are working with our allies through the Friends of Syria to isolate and pressure Assad and to try to get him to realize that his days are numbered and to cease the brutality that he's been waging against his own people."
Clinton's testimony was to committees considering the proposed budget for next year for the State Department and foreign operations.