More than 60 Western and Arab nations are gathering for the crucial “Friends of Syria” conference in Tunis on Friday to demand that the Syria regime implement an immediate ceasefire to allow aid in for desperate civilians in the absence of an international consensus on intervention to end a crackdown on an 11-month-old revolt.
With moves for tough action in the U.N. Security Council stymied by Russian and Chinese vetoes and a lack of appetite for military action to end Assad’s crackdown, delegates are expected to focus on finding ways to ferry medicine and food to stranded civilians and to evacuate casualties stuck in the fighting.
Amid international outrage over the deaths of two Western journalists and reports of intensified shelling of civilians, former U.S. chief Kofi Annan was called on to represent both the U.N. and the Arab League in ending “violence and human rights violations, and promoting a peaceful solution to the Syrian crisis,” the two bodies said in a statement Thursday.
Annan urged all sides in the Syria crisis on Friday to cooperate with his mission, saying he was determined to put an end to the violence and human rights abuses.
“I look forward to having the full cooperation of all relevant parties and stakeholders in support of this united and determined effort by the United Nations and the Arab League to help bring an end to the violence and human rights abuses, and promote a peaceful solution to the Syrian crisis,” he said.
The appointment of Annan came on the day international investigators submitted a list of Syrian military and political officials suspected of possible crimes against humanity while the death toll continued to mount inside the country.
But the Arab League-organized conference of Arab and Western officials will be marked by a Russian boycott and the absence of China.
Both countries have frustrated efforts to rein in Assad’s regime, including by vetoing U.N. Security Council resolutions.
An early draft of the meeting’s declaration being circulated by opposition sources Thursday said it could call for the Syrian government “to implement an immediate ceasefire and to allow free and unimpeded access by the UN... and humanitarian agencies.”
“We look forward to concrete progress on three fronts: providing humanitarian relief, increasing pressure on the regime, and preparing for a democratic transition,” Clinton told reporters in London on the eve of the talks.
“To that end, we hope to see new pledges of emergency assistance for Syrians caught in Assad’s stranglehold, and international coordination and diplomatic pressure on Damascus to allow it to get to those who need it most.”
U.N. humanitarian envoy Valerie Amos was expected to attend the meeting, along with representatives from the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC), which is already working with the Syrian authorities and opposition to arrange daily ceasefires to allow in humanitarian aid.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Thursday Syria’s opposition would ultimately arm itself and go on the offensive if diplomacy failed to resolve the crisis.
Addressing her comments directly to Russia and China, Clinton told reporters in London: “The strategy followed by the Syrians and their allies is one that can’t stand the test of legitimacy or even brutality for any length of time.
“There will be increasingly capable opposition forces. They will from somewhere, somehow, find the means to defend themselves as well as begin offensive measures.”
Asked about the possibility of military action to try to end the bloodshed, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said France could not act without Security Council backing.
“Our priority is to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance,” he told reporters in London. “We want also tomorrow to reaffirm the unity of the international community to exert maximum pressure on the regime ... There is no military option at the moment on the table.”
Those views were echoed in the draft communiqué, which did not mention any foreign military intervention along the lines of the NATO bombing campaign that helped force out Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi.
Instead, it called for a ratcheting up diplomatic pressure on Assad to step down and endorsed an Arab League plan that sees him handing power to a deputy as a prelude to elections.
The wording of the draft reflected a harsh reality: there is little the outside world can or will do to stop the violence as long as Russia and China, both of which declined invitations to the Tunis meeting, reject Security Council resolutions.
Another problem facing world powers is divisions within the Syrian opposition, which they will seek to overcome before offering full backing.
The draft stopped short of fully endorsing the main opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people but proposed that it be recognized as “a legitimate representative of Syrians seeking peaceful democratic change”.
A lack of unity within the Syrian opposition and fears that the country is sliding toward civil war have left even Assad’s harshest critics reluctant to directly arm Syrian rebels in the absence of any moves towards a Libya-style military campaign.
Syrian opposition figures said they expected support to be financial, technical and logistical, allowing them to buy satellite phones and equipment to improve coordination on the ground or to independently smuggle in small arms.
In a sign that there would be no let up in diplomatic pressure on Assad, Turkey said it would host the next “Friends of Syria” meeting.
Humanitarian crisis in Homs
The “Friends of Syria” meeting takes place as Syria’s military pounded rebel-held Sunni Muslim districts of Homs for the 21st day, despite international protests over the death toll of more than 80 on Wednesday, including two Western journalists.
Residents of Homs fear Assad will subject the city to the same treatment his late father Hafez inflicted on the rebellious town of Hama 30 years ago, when thousands were killed.
The revolt against Assad has taken a sectarian slant as most of the protesters trying to topple him are Sunnis, who make up 74 percent of Syria’s 22 million population. Assad is from the minority Alawite sect and critics say he has filled senior posts with Alawites to impose his rule.
U.N. investigators said Syrian forces had shot and killed unarmed women and children, shelled residential areas and tortured wounded protesters in hospital under orders issued at the “highest levels” of the army and government.
In their report to the U.N. Human Rights Council, they called for the perpetrators of such crimes against humanity to face prosecution and said they had drawn up a confidential list of names of commanders and officials alleged to be responsible.
The commission found that the Free Syrian Army, which is made up of thousands of troops who have defected and that has begun to coordinate with the exile-led SNC, had also committed abuses, “although not comparable in scale.”
Syrian authorities have not responded, though they rejected the commission’s previous report in November as “totally false.”
Western diplomats said it had not yet been possible to extract the bodies of Marie Colvin, an American working for Britain’s Sunday Times, and French photographer Remi Ochlik.
Two journalists wounded in the same attack were also awaiting evacuation from the Baba Amro neighborhood of Homs which has seen some of the worst bombardment.
The army is blocking medical supplies to parts of Homs and electricity is cut off for 15 hours a day, activists say.
The SNC has said it will call on the “Friends of Syria” to push for the creation of three humanitarian corridors - one from Lebanon to Homs, one from Turkey to Idlib and one from Jordan to Deraa. It will also call for safe areas for refugees to be established in border areas.
An earlier French proposal to set up humanitarian corridors met with little enthusiasm as it would require military force to keep the areas safe and open.
However, SNC spokeswoman Basma Kodmani said if Russia could persuade Assad to allow safe passage to humanitarian convoys it would avert the need for military intervention.
Russia, which has resisted piling political pressure on Assad, has said it was willing to consider a humanitarian arrangement with the agreement of Assad.
In the midst of the diplomatic deadlock and with the situation worsening inside Syria, this may be the most that the “Friends of Syria” can hope to immediately achieve. That may not be enough to prevent Syria, a country located at the heart of the Middle East, from sliding into a civil war.