The United States stopped short of recognizing the Syrian opposition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people at Friday's international gathering on Syria – but that move is likely to come soon.
When it does, it will reflect a shift of the international community to the side of the still-developing Syrian National Council and Syrian Free Arm and, probably, fatal isolation of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
It will also bear the imprint of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who, more hawkish and interventionist than the president she serves, will have carried the day as she did less than a year ago in the case of Libya.
At Friday’s "Friends of Syria" meeting in Tunisia, more than 60 countries and international humanitarian organizations developed plans for getting humanitarian aid to Syria’s besieged population. The gathering also sought to ramp up pressure on Mr. Assad to allow safe access to humanitarian organizations to get aid into the country.
In an initial sign that Assad might be listening, the Syrian Red Crescent reported Friday that it was being allowed to evacuate wounded women and children from the most devastated neighborhoods of Homs, a city under relentless bombardment by government forces over recent weeks.
The “Friends” meeting also endorsed the concept of a joint Arab League-United Nations peacekeeping force that would enter Syria, presumably once Assad left power, and secure the country during a democratic transition process.
The meeting suffered from the glaring absence of Russia and China. Their joint veto of UN Security Council action on Syria earlier this month continues to limit the possibilities and effectiveness of international intervention. Some countries lay responsibility for Syria’s mounting violence and death toll at Russia’s feet, with France in particular declaring that Assad has interpreted the veto as “a license to kill.”
What happened on the margins of the "Friends" meeting was, in some ways, as important to Syria’s future as what in the general sessions. British Foreign Minister William Hague announced his country’s recognition of the Syrian National Council, the opposition umbrella group, before he met with the council’s president, Burhan Ghalioun. Secretary Clinton also met with Mr. Ghalioun.
Saying Britain’s intent is to “intensify our links with the opposition,” Mr. Hague said a number of countries “will now treat them and recognize them as a legitimate representative of the Syrian people.”
In her comments to the meeting, Clinton described the Syrian National Council (SNC) as “a leading legitimate representative of Syrians seeking peaceful democratic change” and as an “effective representative for the Syrian people with governments and international organizations.”
But she also hinted at US frustration with the inability of Syria’s disparate opposition forces to unite under one representative transitional coalition, as the opposition in Libya did. Clinton praised the SNC for “articulating a plan for the future” but added that the US is looking for “the full range of opposition groups and individuals in Syria, including representatives of all ethnic and religious minorities, to come together around that common vision” for Syria’s political transition.
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.
“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.