US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton used an international bully pulpit in Paris to urge some 100 international diplomats to “reach out” to Russia and China and “demand they get off the sidelines” of the Syrian crisis.
“I don’t think Russia and China believe they are paying any price at all for standing up for the Assad regime,” Ms. Clinton said in a “Friends of the Syrian People” meeting held this morning in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower.
The meeting comes amid the defection of leading Syrian Gen. Manaf Tlass, commander of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's Republican Guard, and whose father headed the Syrian Defense ministry for more than 20 years. French officials said the general was en route to Paris.
Yet in Paris, with Syrian cities under siege, with Russia and China not in attendance, and with the UN observer mission of Kofi Annan suspended for two months, it is unclear whether the Paris group can do much more than offer marginal help and moral support.
Moment of silence
The international delegates stood for a minute of silence called by France's President François Hollande to honor the Syrian victims of what Mr. Hollande called a “tragedy of bewildering proportions.” Hollande said fervently in opening the meeting that “Bashir al Assad must go … a transitional government must be set up,” repeating a call from similar meetings in Tunis and Istanbul this spring.
The Syrian regime’s “fall is inevitable,” Hollande said, and Clinton described “a steady and inexorable path toward ending this regime.”
Syrian opposition members here called for humanitarian corridors and a “no-fly zone” to bring in aid and establish means to build a new country and free civilians from what opposition figure Rima Fleyhane called “a Mafia state that only wants to hold onto power.” She said that some 1.5 million Syrian civilians are displaced.
US diplomats are pushing further sanctions ahead of a UN Security Council meeting next week, and want to keep international momentum and pressure on Mr. Assad to implement a peace plan after more than 16,000 people, many women and children, have been killed in 17 months of civil strife.
Too many meetings, too few results?
But amid the Paris gathering, some analysts are saying that too many such meetings without result may become counterproductive and dramatize to figures like Russia’s Vladimir Putin a weakness or unwillingness of the world to step into the complexities of Syria.
Arab League Secretary General Nabil al-Arabi told delegates here that after two previous “Friends” meetings it is important to do more than declare an intent to act. “We need to force the Security Council to adopt a resolution to end this tragedy, a moral tragedy forced upon the Syrian people,” he said.
A new Human Rights Watch report on Syria this week detailed widespread and “systematic” acts of torture and crimes by the Syrian regime, and Hollande in opening the meeting made “no impunity for crimes” by actors of the Syrian state the first of five commitments for the gathering. An emphasis on international justice and crimes against humanity would put Assad and Syria in the sights of the International Criminal Court and further solidify Syria as a pariah nation, experts say.
Hollande pushed for sanctions, humanitarian help, and communications equipment for the opposition, something requested for months by the opposition.
“These are good intentions, but I doubt this meeting can accomplish much,” says Thomas Pierret at the University of Edinburgh. “Russia is opposing any kind of diplomatic solution.” However, the defection of Syrian General Tlass is significant, Mr. Pierret said. Tlass “is the first really high ranking military officer to defect … this might send some shock waves [in the region] and is good news for the opposition.”
Delegates listened as Syrian opposition described upward of 1.5 to 2 million displaced, tens of thousands detained, and a need for help among neighborhood networks that have formed in the past year.
Some 200,000 of 500,000 people in the city of Duma came out to protest and today much of its population has left, said Riyad Seif, an opposition member speaking at the meeting in Paris’ 15th district. “Please do help us,” Mr. Seif said. “There are 2 million displaced. They need medication, food, and a roof over their head. These people must be given help, and their suffering must be reduced. The aid is not reaching them.”