‘Friends of Syrian People’ call for end to violence in Syria, urges more sanctions

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that President Bashar al-Assad and his forces have brought about a humanitarian catastrophe in Syria. (Reuters)

Arab and Western nations in Tunisia for the first “Friends of the Syrian People” meeting called Friday for an immediate end to violence in the country and for new sanctions on the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

In a final declaration, the group called for the regime to immediately end all violence to allow for humanitarian aid to be brought in.

“The Friends’ Group called on the Syrian government immediately to cease all violence and to allow free and unimpeded access by the U.N. and humanitarian agencies,” it said.

“It demanded that the Syrian regime immediately permit humanitarian agencies to deliver vital relief goods and services to civilians affected by the violence,” it said.

It also vowed to “press the Syrian regime to stop all acts of violence” by enforcing current sanctions and introducing new ones, including with travel bans, asset freezes, ceasing oil purchases, reducing diplomatic ties and preventing the shipment of arms.

“Participants committed to take steps to apply and enforce restrictions and sanctions on the regime and its supporters as a clear message to the Syrian regime that it cannot attack civilians with impunity,” it said.

It also recognized the main opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Council (SNC), as “a legitimate representative of Syrians seeking peaceful democratic change” but fell short of giving it exclusive recognition.

The declaration did not fully endorse some Arab calls for peacekeepers to be deployed to Syria, with the declaration saying only that it “noted the Arab League’s request to the United Nations Security Council to issue a resolution to form a joint Arab-U.N. peacekeeping force.”

“Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad and his security forces have brought about a humanitarian catastrophe in the country,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Friday.

“The people who bear responsibility for this humanitarian catastrophe are Assad and his security forces,” Clinton told reporters in Tunis after the inaugural meeting of the “Friends of the Syrian people” group, according to Reuters.

Clinton said that the “attitude of Russians and Chinese” on Syria must be changed, referring to the double-veto used by both Moscow and Beijing at the U.N. Security Council to block a draft resolution against Syria.

Clinton appealed to Syrian security forces to disobey orders from their commanders to carry out acts of violence against opponents of Assad.

“Their (Syrian security forces) continuing to kill their brothers and sisters is a stain on their honor,” Clinton said.

“Their refusal to continue this slaughter will make them heroes in the eyes of not only Syrians but people of conscience everywhere. They can help the guns fall silent.”

Tunisian foreign minister said that western and Arab powers will probably recognize the Syrian National Council as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people during the next meeting of the “Friends of the Syrian People” group in Turkey, according to AFP.

Rafik Abdul Salem, who chaired Friday’s inaugural “Friends of the Syrian People” meeting in the Tunisian capital, said of the recognition issue: “We have gone half the way and we will probably do the other half in Turkey.”

He also said Friday’s meeting had backed an Arab League demand for a joint Arab and United Nations force to help end the violence in Syria. However, this point was not included in the meeting’s final communique.

Highlighting the divisions, though, Saudi Arabia called publicly for weapons and ammunition to be sent to the opposition, including the Free Syrian Army, a Turkey-based outfit made up largely of Assad regime defectors.

“I think it’s an excellent idea,” Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal told reporters as he prepared to meet Clinton on the margins of the conference. Asked why, he replied: “Because they have to defend themselves.”

Clinton demurred on the question, according to The Associated Press. But on Thursday in London, she said the opposition would eventually find arms from some suppliers if Assad keeps up the relentless assault.

The Obama administration initially opposed arming the opposition but has recently opened the door to the possibility by saying that while a political solution is preferable, other measures may be needed if the onslaught doesn't end.

The Syrian National Council, for its part, said it would be grateful for help in any area.

“We welcome any assistance you might offer, or means to protect our brothers and sisters who are struggling to end the rule of tyranny,” council president Burhan Ghalioun told the conference. He laid out the council’s goal of a free, democratic Syria free of the “rule of a Mafia family” in which the rights of all would be respected.

Clinton took direct aim at all three countries, although not by name.

“If the Assad regime refuses to allow this lifesaving aid to reach civilians, it will have even more blood on its hands,” she said. “So too will those nations that continue to protect and arm the regime. We call on those states that are supplying weapons to kill civilians to halt immediately.”

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