Amid threats to cease-fire, 'Friends of Syria' seek new ways to press Assad

At a meeting in Paris, the 'Friends of Syria' countries supporting the opposition are looking at further cuts in Syria's oil exports. But Russia says the group is undermining the cease-fire.

Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe (l. and Syrian Auditing Consultant Maria Chatti attend an international conference of a working group monitoring sanctions against the Syrian regime in Paris on April 17.

With the UN-brokered Syrian cease-fire showing signs of falling apart, the Western and Arab countries supporting Syria’s opposition are searching for ways to ratchet up the pressure on the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

Each side in the conflict is accusing the other of simply preparing for the cease-fire collapse that both seem to expect. Government forces have yet to pull all their heavy weapons out of population centers as called for in the six-point cease-fire plan, and opposition forces reportedly are using a partial lull in the fighting to amass arms.

In Paris Tuesday, the “Friends of Syria” group of countries met with the goal of further shutting off the Syrian government’s spigot of revenue.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, who told the gathering of more than 50 countries, including the United States, that the Assad government’s financial resources have been halved by sanctions and other measures since October, called for additional coordination of measures to cut Syrian revenues further.

One target: Syria’s oil exports, which have already been reduced by nearly a third since November – accounting for about $400 million a month in lost revenue – according to petroleum industry experts.

Mr. Juppe said that a central point of Tuesday’s meeting was to “send a message” to President Assad to abide by the UN cease-fire plan he agreed to and to cooperate with UN monitors who have started to arrive in Damascus. Full implementation of the plan would result in the deployment of 250 UN “blue helmets” in Syria to monitor observance of the cease-fire.

But at least one powerful supporter of Assad, Russia, blasted the Friends of Syria for undermining the fragile plan negotiated by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that “outside forces” like the Friends of Syria were influencing the Syrian opposition “so that it doesn’t work with the government in maintaining a cease-fire and setting up a future dialogue.”

At least two members of the Arab League, Syria’s neighbors Iraq and Lebanon, expressed their opposition to the Friends of Syria focus by pointedly opting not to attend the Paris meeting.

Others, however, place the blame for the violence that has returned – after an initial lull Thursday when the cease-fire took effect – squarely with Assad.

The US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, acknowledged Monday that the violence had ebbed “for a couple of days,” but she then pointed to a resumption of shelling of the opposition stronghold of Homs over the weekend as proof that the government was violating the plan. Moreover, she said the government’s disregard was placing a dark cloud over the future of the cease-fire, saying the violations “will call into question the

wisdom and the viability of sending in the full monitoring presence” outlined in the Annan plan.

The countries gathered in Paris Tuesday set their next meeting for Washington next month – by which time the Annan plan will have either managed somehow to hold, or will have collapsed into a full-fledged return to violence.

If the latter occurs, Syria will very likely have descended into civil war, some Middle East experts say. And that, they add, will in turn increase the pressure for countries in the Friends of Syria group, like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and even the US, to provide arms to Syria’s opposition forces. 

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