'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.

Jason Reed/AP
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.

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.

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."

This first Friends of Syria group meeting is modeled on those held last year to support Libya's fledging opposition, which ultimately toppled the regime of Col. Muammar Qaddafi – with extensive NATO military help – within six months.

Absent were Russia and China, whose vetoes of two United Nations Security Council resolutions that condemned the Syrian regime helped prompt the holding of this meeting. Both have called for a "speedy end" to the crisis but done little to stop the Syrian crackdown. Russia has continued to sell arms to the regime, but today the foreign ministry in Moscow called for "an immediate mutual ceasefire" to enable the evacuation of wounded from Homs. 

Lebanon and Syria's minority Kurds and Alawites, the Shiite sect which forms the backbone of the Assad regime, were also absent.

Meanwhile, the Saudi delegation walked out of the meeting, citing "inactivity," according to TV channel Al Arabiya, although the foreign minister told Reuters that the delegates merely left to attend bilateral talks on the sidelines of the conference. 

Stepping into this political melee is Kofi Annan, the former UN chief appointed yesterday by the UN and Arab League as their special envoy for Syria.

Mr. Annan will seek to end "all violence and human rights violations, and promote a peaceful solution to the Syrian crisis," the UN and Arab League said in a statement.

This won't be another Libya

US and European leaders have ruled out a Libya-style military intervention, fearing a protracted civil war, while the Arab League has led calls for Assad to step down. 

Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki, host of the conference, told Al Jazeera English that arming the opposition was not on the agenda, and warned that Syria is not Libya.

"We still believe that we have to keep this revolution as peaceful as possible," Mr. Marzouki said. "The Libyan scenario is not acceptable in Syria because the situation in Syria is much more complex than in Libya, and that would probably lead to an important national crisis, and this wasn't the situation [in Libya]," he said. "In Tunisia we are friends of the Syrian people, but we are against any military intervention."

Indeed, the differences are stark between the Libya and Syria cases. In Libya, the opposition early on controlled territory, and entire military units defected. That enabled a rebel structure for improving fighting skills and hardware that could take advantage of NATO airstrikes, despite their often shambolic performance on the battlefield. The opposition Libyan National Council was also relatively coherent and headquartered inside the country.

None of those circumstances exist for Syria, which still has support from powerful allies like Iran, Russia, and China. Libya, by contrast, was largely friendless during Qaddafi's final months. 

Tunisia, home of the first Arab Spring revolution sparked in December 2010, will propose a political transition for Syria like that in Yemen, where President Ali Abdullah Saleh finally stepped down after months of protests and violence. Mr. Marzouki offered immunity to Assad if he would leave Syria.

"If we are real friends of Syria, then we have to do all we can to reduce their suffering, and we have to force the Syrian regime to stop fighting," the Tunisian president told the conference. "Kofi Annan, the UN envoy, is being asked to ask the Syrian regime to stop such massacres."

The draft final resolution calls for an immediate cease-fire by the Syrian government and a demand to "allow free and unimpeded access by the UN and humanitarian agencies" in the worst conflict zones.

There have been suggestions of three aid corridors: one in the north, from Turkey to the city of Idlib; one in the west, from Lebanon to the besieged city of Homs, Syria's 3rd-largest city; and one in the south, from Jordan to the opposition town of Deraa.

"This conference will help the Syrian people, the revolutionaries, I think, they will give us the power as a national council, a political umbrella for the revolution inside Syria," SNC executive director Hatihem al-Maleh said in Tunis before the conference.

Speaking in London on the eve of the meeting, Secretary of State Clinton said that if Assad doesn't accept the demands, pressure and sanctions will continue to build.

"I think that the strategy followed by the Syrians and their allies is one that can't stand the test of legitimacy...for any length of time," Mrs. Clinton said.

"There will be increasingly capable opposition forces," she added. "They will from somewhere, somehow find the means to defend themselves as well as begin offensive measures."

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