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Saudi Arabia and Qatar want to arm the Syrian opposition, raising the prospect of a widening conflict after the “Friends of Syria” group met in Tunis yesterday to pressure President Bashar al-Assad to step down.
The two Arab nations backed a plan to send weapons to rebels fighting the Syrian regime, a call echoed by prominent U.S. Republican lawmakers, while the Obama administration and officials from Morocco, Tunisia and Bahrain said they are against moves that would further militarize the conflict.
That divide contrasted with the otherwise united front in condemning the violence unleashed by the Assad regime. Syrian forces killed 18 people today, including eight in Aleppo province, the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in an e-mailed statement. Syrian forces broke up a protest of 4,000 people near Aleppo city, it said.
Arming the opposition is “an excellent idea,” Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said on his way into a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, “because they have to protect themselves.”
Clinton, Saud and officials from more than 70 countries attended the conference in Tunis, where they backed a decision to begin planning a joint Arab League-United Nations peacekeeping mission after Assad’s ouster. The meeting was disrupted 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 out the demonstration.
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 Russia and China’s support for the regime “despicable” and urged 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.”
The gathering was meant to advance the process of peeling away the Syrian leader’s business and military support within the country and highlighting the isolation of Russia and China, which have protected Assad from calls to step down with two UN vetoes, Clinton said.
“To those Syrians who still support Assad, especially members of the Syrian military: understand that this regime has no future,” Clinton told those gathered at the meeting.
The Friends group announced it will begin planning for an economic and political transition.
“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. UN Secretary-General 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, according to diplomats attending the conference who spoke on condition of anonymity.
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.
“It has to be a peaceful revolution, the Tunisian revolution was a peaceful revolution,” Tunisian Foreign Minister Rafik Abdelssalem said.
Saad Eddin Ottoman, the Moroccan foreign minister, said his country is against arming the Syrian opposition. “We reject arming the opposition in order not to lead Syria into civil war,” he said in an interview.
While the U.S. has repeatedly said it is against militarizing the conflict, administration officials have signaled openness to offering broader support than just humanitarian aid.
President Barack Obama said yesterday the international community is “going to keep the pressure up and look for every tool available to prevent the slaughter of innocents.”
It’s “absolutely imperative for the international community to rally,” to send a clear message to the Assad regime, Obama said after meeting with Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt at the White House.
Republican lawmakers in Congress yesterday raised the pressure on the administration to act more aggressively. Arizona Senator John McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, called for the White House to arm the Syrian rebels and provide them with military support.
“What is needed urgently are tangible actions by the community of responsible nations to ensure that the Syrian people have the means to protect themselves against their attackers,” McCain said in a statement issued with Senators Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, and Joe Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut. “This assistance should include access to weapons, tactical intelligence, communications equipment, financing, and medical supplies,” the senators said.
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 may 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 spill over 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 a structure, led by the UN, with operational hubs in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey to deliver aid.
Qatari Foreign Minister Hamad Jassim bin Jabr al-Thani and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu urged creation of humanitarian corridors to get aid to besieged Syrians.
Clinton denounced Russian and Chinese support for Assad.
“It’s quite distressing to see two permanent members of the Security Council using their veto while people are being murdered -- women, children, brave young men -- houses are being destroyed,” she said. “It is just despicable and I ask whose side are they on? They are clearly not on the side of the Syrian people.”
Burhan Ghalioun, president of the Syrian National Council, an umbrella group of regime opponents, told the council that “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.
He later told reporters that the conference didn’t meet the ambitions of the Syrian people and that more work needed to be done. Opposition groups in the besieged city of Homs addressed the conference by video link.
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