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Hillary Clinton, at 'Friends' meeting, has encouraging words for Syria rebels

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stopped short of giving an official US nod to the Syrian opposition to the Assad regime. But, as 'Friends of Syria' meeting ends, that move is likely to come soon.

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American and other Western officials, as well as Arab League diplomats, have expressed exasperation at the Syrian opposition’s inability to overcome deep political, sectarian, and ethnic divisions to forge a common future course.

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“What we are expecting is unity of the opposition, but we have been expecting this for months,” a senior European diplomat told a group of journalists in Washington Thursday. A year into the Syrian crisis the divisions remain frustratingly deep, he added. “In the case of Libya “it was done in a matter of a few weeks.”

The opposition’s lack of unity is one reason the "Friends" meeting did not take up arming the rebels of the Syrian Free Army, made up largely of soldiers who have deserted the Syrian military. The SFA, based in Turkey, does not coordinate with the Syrian National Council, let alone consider itself its armed wing. Still, some countries, including Saudi Arabia, spoke enthusiastically about the idea of sending arms to opposition forces.  

Clinton steered clear of the issue in her formal remarks, but in informal comments she did reiterate the administration’s softening on arming the rebels, which the State Department and White House had unveiled earlier in the week.

On Thursday while in London, Clinton said, “There will be increasingly capable opposition forces. They will – from somewhere, somehow – find the means to defend themselves as well as begin offensive measures.” She added, “World opinion is not going to stand idly by.”

Some foreign policy analysts, noting Clinton’s role in persuading President Obama to engage the US militarily on the side of Libya’s rebels, speculate that Clinton could return from the Tunis meeting determined not to see the US “stand idly by” regarding Syria either.

While no one expects the US to enter the Syria crisis militarily, the US could join other Western powers and Arab League countries in pressing for a more aggressive international stance to confront Assad. Anne-Marie Slaughter – Clinton’s former policy planning director at the State Department – has called for the establishment of “no-kill zones" inside Syria.

In an opinion piece in The New York Times Friday, Dr. Slaughter said the “Friends of Syria,” including the US, should help the Free Syrian Army establish “no-kill zones” along Syria’s border with Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, where all Syrians could find refuge from Assad’s assault and access to international humanitarian aid.

Slaughter says a plan to “create zones of peace in what are now zones of death” should come from the region – the Arab league and Turkey – just as regional powers took the lead in the Libya crisis.

Establishing the zones, she says, would require neighboring countries such as Turkey and Syria to arm rebel forces – and with heavier arms than the rifles they currently operate with, including antitank and portable anti-aircraft weapons.

The plan’s intent is to create safe havens. But a byproduct would seem to be development of the “increasingly capable opposition forces” Clinton talked about.

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