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The U.S. and allies in the “Friends of Syria” group sought to increase pressure on President Bashar al-Assad, announcing planning would begun for deploying United Nations peacekeepers after his ouster.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and officials from more than 70 countries attended the meeting in Tunis, which was confronted by pro-Assad supporters waving placards and shouting for the U.S. to leave the region. Clinton’s motorcade was diverted from the conference site until Tunisian security forces cleared the demonstration.
As Qatar and Tunisia called for Arab forces to enter Syria and enforce peace, Clinton denounced the Syrian regime’s violence against its opponents as an “affront to the international community, a threat to regional security, and a grave violation of universal human rights.” She called for a “negotiated, political settlement” that results in Assad’s departure.
“There should be no mistaking our resolve,” Clinton said in remarks to the meeting. “These crimes against the Syrian people must stop, and there must be accountability for senior figures of the regime.”
Today’s meeting was meant to peel away the Syrian leader’s business and military support within the country and highlight the isolation of Russia and China, which have protected Assad from calls to step down with two UN vetoes, according to diplomats attending the conference who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“To those Syrians who still support Assad, especially members of the Syrian military: Understand that this regime has no future,” Clinton said in remarks to the meeting. “The longer you carry out its campaign of violence, the more it will stain your honor.”
The Friends group announced it will begin planning for an economic and political transition. The goal, Clinton said, is to fulfill the Arab League’s vision of a national unity government in Syria and Assad’s ouster.
“We know the time of the regime is ending,” Volker Perthes, head of the Berlin-based Institute for International and Security Affairs and the author of books on Syria and the Arab world, said in an interview. “Most of Assad’s shelf life is over, but he could still hold on for months.”
At the same time, “building golden bridges for people high in the regime who may want to leave is a way to speed Assad’s end,” he said. “It needs to be made clear to these people that they won’t starve if they leave for Lebanon, Europe or elsewhere.”
On the eve of the talks, the UN and Arab League appointed former UN chief Kofi Annan to be special envoy on the Syrian crisis. The current UN chief, Ban Ki-Moon, would begin planning for the deployment of “blue helmet” peacekeeping forces, a process that he can do without fear of being blocked by either Russia or China, the diplomats said.
Planning such missions requires finding funding and defining the mandate. The Arab League pushed for the declaration of the UN plans, the diplomats said, in part to get member countries started on their own plans to contribute.
In his remarks, Tunisian president Moncef Marzouki called for the formation of “an Arab force, accompanied by diplomatic efforts to keep peace and security in Syria.” He called on Assad to step down, and renewed his country’s rejection of a military intervention in Syria.
Some countries, such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, say the Friends group should arm the Syrian opposition, a position the U.S. rejects for fear of militarizing the conflict.
As he went into a one-on-one meeting with Clinton, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said he thought arming the opposition is “an excellent idea.” Asked why, he said, “because they have to protect themselves.”
“If someone is being attacked ‘‘and being just a recipient of harm, not able to defend himself, his family, and his property, is not something enjoyable to see,’’ Saud told reporters.
Riad Kahwaji, director of the Institute for Near East & Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai, said if other countries funnel weapons to the opposition, it is likely to be anti-armor or anti-aircraft weapons needed to take out tanks and aircraft.
Kahwaji said one reason the U.S. doesn’t back arming the opposition might be Syria’s proximity to Israel.
‘‘If the situation worsens in Syria, the government collapses, there is a fear that militias and armed groups will spread and risk turning into an insurgency that may spillover into the Golan Heights,” Kahwaji said in a phone interview today. “If Syria was not on Israel’s border there would have been military intervention yesterday.”
The death toll in the Syrian government’s crackdown on protests has risen to about 8,500, according to the Arab Organization for Human Rights. Assad’s government says “armed terrorist groups” with foreign support are responsible for the violence.
The Friends group challenged Assad to stop his assault on cities by declaring its immediate readiness to deliver aid as soon as the bombardment stops. The group announced an aid structure, led by the UN, with operational hubs in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey to deliver aid.
“If the Assad regime refuses to allow this life-saving aid to reach civilians, it will have even more blood on its hands,” Clinton said. “So too will those nations that continue to protect and arm the regime.”
Burhan Ghalioun, president of the Syrian National Council, an umbrella group of regime opponents, addressed the council and said “the new Syria will not be the property of any sect, denomination or group, rather it will be a homeland for all citizens equally.” He appealed to Syria’s Christian and Kurdish minorities, assuring them their rights would be respected.
Opposition groups in the besieged city of Homs addressed the conference by video link.
Syrian troops today continued their three-week bombardment of Homs, the country’s third-largest city, where two western journalists were among the fatalities this week. Al-Jazeera television today showed footage of three reporters who said they are stranded in Syria.
French journalist Edith Bouvier, whose leg was broken in the attack that killed the Sunday Times’s Marie Colvin and photographer Remi Ochlik, pleaded in the video for a cease-fire so she can be evacuated. “The doctors here treated us very well, as much as they can, but they are not able to undertake surgeries,” she said.
The French Foreign Ministry said Ambassador Eric Chevallier returned to the Damascus embassy, after a two weeks absence, and will “work hard” to arrange Bouvier’s evacuation.
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