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'Friends of Syria' conference demands Assad open humanitarian aid corridors

Syrian forces continued to attack Homs as the 'Friends of Syria' international group met in Tunisia. A draft resolution called for a cease-fire, while Secretary of State Clinton said sanctions would increase if the violence does not stop.

By Staff writer / February 24, 2012

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton greets United Arab Emirates' Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan (l.) and British Foreign Minister William Hague at the Friends of Syria Conference in Tunis, Friday. The United States, Europe and Arab countries are set to back a proposal for Syria's President Bashar al-Assad to step aside and allow in humanitarian assistance to end a brutal crackdown against opponents.

Jason Reed/AP

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Istanbul, Turkey

Absent a credible threat of force to stop nearly a year of carnage in Syria, an international conference today has demanded that President Bashar al-Assad end government violence and open humanitarian aid corridors within 48 hours.

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As Syrian security forces continued to bombard the city of Homs for a 21st consecutive day, top diplomats of more than 60 nations – the self-styled "Friends of Syria" – met in Tunis to raise pressure on the Syrian regime. Multiple agendas are in play as delegates discuss how to bolster or arm the opposition, whether to insist that Mr. Assad step aside or try to engineer his downfall, and whether elements of the current regime can help ease a crackdown that has so far claimed as many as 8,000 lives. 

The draft resolution crafted at the meeting states that the Syrian National Council (SNC), an umbrella group of regime opponents formed outside the country last fall, would be recognized as "a legitimate representative of Syrians" and receive "practical" support for opposition groups.

Sanctions on Syria are to be stepped up further, but beyond that, concrete steps were limited and there were many signs of division among Syrian opposition groups.

"If the Assad regime refuses to allow this lifesaving aid to reach civilians, it will have even more blood on its hands," US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the "Friends of Syria" group in Tunis. She warned Assad: "You will pay a heavy cost for ignoring the will of the international community and violating the human rights of your people."

Qatar's Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani – whose tiny gas-rich emirate secretly sent Qatari special forces, cash, and hardware to Libya last year – called for intervention. 

"There is a need to create an Arab force and open humanitarian corridors to provide security to the Syrian people," Mr. al-Thani told the conference.

Crucial absences

Syria's opposition today revealed publicly for the first time that the Free Syrian Army – made up mainly of Syrian soldiers who have defected, and ad hoc civilians – is already receiving light arms, communications, and night vision equipment.

"It is coming from everywhere, including Western countries and it is not difficult to get anything through the borders," one opposition source told Reuters. "There is not a decision by any country to arm the rebels, but countries are allowing Syrians to buy weapons and send them into the country."

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