A Statement from the delegation of the National Coordination Body to the ‘Friends of Syria’ conference in Tunisia
The National Coordination Body for Democratic Change has been closely following the movements leading to the ‘Friends of Syria’ conference. The NCB acknowledges the noble intentions behind the calling of the conference, especially since it is to be hosted by Tunisia, the country that sparked the Arab spring, whose its officials have always been resolutely against foreign military intervention in Syria and who abhor sectarianism and violence no matter where it emanates from. Tunisia has been dedicated to preserving the unity of Syria. It has sought to do this by attempting to unite the democratic resistance, unifying the efforts of the opposition rather than dividing them or creating tensions through favoritism and marginalization; and maintaining this unity through promoting the Arab plan because of its wide acceptance by the popular movements and the civil and political groupings in Syria. For these reasons the NCB agreed to send a signficant delegation to the conference led by Dr. Haytham Manna, the Deputy General Coordinator accompanied by the following: Abdulmajeed Manjooneh, Rajaa’ AlNasser, Ma’amoon Khaleefa, Saleh Muslim, Mohammed Hijazi, Dr. Hani Abu Saleh, Dr. Huda Al Zain, Fadel Ali, Abdulrahman Khaleefa, all of whom are leading members of the NCB in Syria or in exile.The Tunisian President gave assurances that all opposition groups will be dealt with equally without any favoritism so there would be no recognition of one group over the rest; that foreign military intervention is a red line that will not be crossed; and that the escalating militarization of the conflict is recognised as a threat to civil peace and the victory of our peaceful revolution. Despite all of these intentions and assurances, a closed group of 11 countries, including Arab and non-Arab members, has moved to paint a different picture of the Conference based on preconceptions emerging from closed meetings, that the Conference was to serve a different end for them, one that they are actively seeking. For this reason, certain powerful countries have refused to attend. We then witnessed a stronger and more dangerous push towards withdrawing the plan from the Arab League under the guise of protecting the Arab work plan, and a push to replace those who represent the Syrian people, taking it away from the Arab League-approved opposition conference and therefore the Syrian people themselves. We also observe attempts to leave the military window open, both in relation to militarizing the opposition and for foreign intervention.All of this is in direct conflict with the interests of the Syrian people, their borders, unity, and their fight for dignity, democracy and justice – which is the essence of the Syrian revolution. Despite our vocal reservations regarding the first working paper that was circulated, and our position regarding the retaining of this, these eleven countries reaffirmed their committment to it in their closing statements in their London conference, empowering the less rational and more factionalist elements of the opposition that will only cause harm to the unity of the cause, as well as empowering the brutal regime’s physical and rhetorical capabilities, whilst harming the Syrian people and their revolution.Having reviewed the arrangements of the conference, its papers, and the questionable role played by some countries, the NCB delegation has come to the conclusion that its participation in the Conference would be detrimental, therefore it refuses to participate in the Conference and will submit a dossier on this important matter to the brothers and sisters at the executive committee so that they may take the right stance and appropriate actions regarding the outcomes of the conference.Long live the free, democratic and civil Syria24/02/2012 TunisNational Coordination Body for Democratic Change in Syria delegation
Web site: http://syrianncb.org/
Speech of Dr. Burhan Ghalioun, President of the Syrian National Council
Friends of Syria Conference
Tunis, February 24, 2012
Ladies and Gentlemen, Brothers and Sisters, Dear Friends:
I thank you for your participation in this Friends of Syria Conference. I salute all the righteous souls of our fallen heroes and pay tribute to our great people, who have not stopped in their struggle to regain their rights, lost since the Assad family took over power. We started a revolution of freedom and dignity in the heart of Damascus, Syria on March 15. Our revolution was peaceful, but the regime’s response was atrocious. It bombed Lattakia from the sea; its soldiers slaughtered the people of Daraa; and armored vehicles moved into Hama and Homs, which is even now being pounded by heavy artillery shelling.
The humanitarian situation during this tragic time is not a secret. Today, we see the example of Baba Amr neighborhood and cities in Syria, where the regime commits systematic murder and works to terrorize residents, break their will, and force them to surrender and submit to its will. Yet the Syrian people have not surrendered, nor will they give up. A free people was born in Syria, and it does not fear death, nor does it accept to bargain away its long-deprived rights or give up its sovereignty by any definition.
We, the people of Syria, applaud your solidarity with us and your commitment to the cause of our people, and we are proud of our friendship with you. We welcome any assistance you might offer, or means to protect our brothers and sisters who are struggling to end the rule of tyranny. But let me also be frank with you: We are here today to work together for the future of Syria and the Syrian people. There is no room for regional competition, nor is there room to move the Syrian issue from one international camp to another. Our goal is a free, independent, sovereign Syria, and meeting the aspirations of the Syrian people is our objective. What is most desired by our people today is to, quite simply, transition to a system of government that is not based on force or under which citizens are terrorized and tortured. The Syrian people do not want a government that, rather than punishing corruption, revels in it. The Syrian people seek a government under which citizenship alone shall guarantee their rights and duties, rather than nepotism, favoritism, and personal loyalties.
What the Syrian people seek –all the Syrian people– is a government that knows the true meaning of accountability and responsibility. What the Syrian people seek is a government bound by the rule of law and under which all citizens of all segments of society are free and equal in their rights and national obligations. The Syrian people, all the Syrian people, want an end to the rule of a Mafia family and the establishment of a forward-looking, democratic, civil state in this new era. A system of government under which no Syrian must give up his dignity and freedom to stay alive. A system of government under which all Syrians have equal opportunities, and can enjoy the fruits of their labor and talents, rather than seeing them go to the close relatives and aides of senior officials.
We in the Syrian National Council, and as representatives of the Syrian people, thank you for your help. We value your friendship. However, the key to the solution remains in the hands of Syrians. And I say to them: the revolution of our youth in Syria has brought us to this moment of truth. The time has come for us to assume our responsibilities and work together to rebuild the spirit of national unity and fraternity that the regime has torn apart through its violence and corruption.
Syria is our goal. Let me speak openly and honestly. The key to the solution is in our hands alone. I speak before you now as a Syrian Arab citizen who happened to be born a Muslim. The beliefs I hold do not affect my commitments as a citizen, nor do they provide me with a national or cultural identity any more so than they would a Kurdish Syrian or Assyrian or Armenian, or any other ethnicity from across the spectrum of Syria to which each of us may belong.
What is happening today in Syria has nothing to do with a conflict between a minority and a majority. Those who are guilty of violating people’s honor and trampling on their rights, who kill their fellow countrymen and steal from them, have no religion or ethics, and are not of us. They have no humanity. And so I say to my fearful Alawite compatriots: You are my brothers and sisters, and your unique role in rebuilding the new Syria cannot be undertaken by anyone else, because it is a right you have earned through your historic struggle for Syria. No one has the right to hold you responsible for crimes committed by the Assad-Makhlouf Mafia. You are not responsible for the actions of corrupt dictators.
I say to my Christian brothers and sisters: Many of you left your historic Syria in the past in search of freedom and better opportunities. When you left, a dearly held part of Syria died. The new Syria is no longer merely a dream, it is within our reach, and we will work together to ensure that each Christian who needed to leave can return to the land of his or her forefathers.
The new Syria will not be the property of any sect, denomination, or group. Rather, it will be a homeland for all its citizens equally, a democratic civil state based on the rule of law and civil liberties in which our citizenship transcends any social, ethnic, or sectarian faction. The new Syria will be one to which Syrians will be proud to belong; a Syria in which any citizen has the right to seek the highest positions in government without regard to ethnic origin, religion, or gender.
And to my Kurdish brothers and sisters, I say: Syria belongs to us all. There is no contradiction between a Syria that returns and embraces its Arab character and a Syria that respects your national identity and in which you are assured of equal rights before the law. The new Syria will have a decentralized government, thereby enabling local authorities to take control of their affairs. The people and land of the new Syria will remain united, and the new Syria will avail itself of every opportunity to celebrate the diversity that has enriched its long history. Your identity will be nationally recognized and respected, and your rights as citizens will be assured. You will play a significant role in rebuilding the Syria of our dreams, the Syria of which we have been dreaming for decades.
To all Syrians, I say: The Syrian National Council will not accept any form of political isolation, nor any form of discrimination based on ethnicity, religion, or gender. We reject any form of government that does not draw its legitimacy from the will of its people. For all those who fear what will happen as result of Assad’s and his thieves’ departure, I say: The Syrian National Council envisions a future Syria based on the rule of law and state institutions within a free and civil society that is founded in a prosperous, diverse, and creative nation. Syrians should never have to leave their country in search of freedom, opportunities, or a decent life.
To all Syrians who fear that chaos or instability will substitute the rule of Assad’s mafia and his supporters, I say that the solution is in our hands and the road ahead is clear:
- Continue the popular Revolution and resistance until Basher Al-Assad is ousted or a delegated authority takes over as per the Arab League Ministers’ Action Plan.
- The formation of a “Presidential Council” composed of national leaders, and the formation of a transitional government of political, military, and technocratic figures who have not fought against the Revolution; a government that will manage the nation’s affairs and maintains its structure and institutions, particularly military and civilian administration.
- The formation of Truth and Reconciliation Committee responsible for addressing the legal and psychological terrorism by the previous regime and preventing any sectarian or political reprisals. The committee will work to reconcile and restore the sense of nationalism and human values that have been lacking during this crisis.
- At the end of the transitional phase, elections of members of Parliament will be held under the supervision of Arab and international monitors. The Parliament will choose a new president, appoint a new government, and establish a constitution based on parliamentary, pluralistic, and democratic rule to ensure a civil state in Syria. Only when the Legislative Council holds its first session will we have a new life with a democratic parliament, with God’s help.
Dear Brothers, Sisters, and Friends,
We sincerely hope that the assembly of this conference will be a turning point for the Syrian people’s long-awaited and bitter struggle to restore their natural rights and freedoms from the bloody and corrupt military rule. The regime exploited the international community for stability and used humanitarian, patriotic, and noble slogans to discredit an entire nation and rob it of its resources while controlling its children’s lives. The military dictatorship insulted individuality, humiliated the nation, and held its will in contempt, as it did to its culture, standing policy, history, and its foundation. For the past half-century, the military dictatorship has used control as a means of governance and violence. It has led to the bloodshed and abuse of individuals, including children, women, the youth, and the elderly without distinction, where thousands were imprisoned and thousands more were exiled. The Syrian people demand the following:
- First and foremost, the urgent provision of immediate relief, the declaration of disaster areas in Syria, and the establishment of humanitarian corridors to provide emergency assistance to Syrians. We demand that all women, children, and the wounded be evacuated from the besieged cities. Humanitarian and aid collection centers must be established in neighboring countries.
- Second, to secure and ensure freedom of work and movement for international relief and human rights organizations to help people in coping with the harsh conditions across the country.
- Third, to provide a means of protection for Syrian civilians and to remove all threats facing them, in order to create conditions that allow them to freely express their opinions and create an environment that helps foster self-determination.
- Fourth, to recognize the Syrian National Council and support its efforts in coordinating various parties involved in the Revolution within the framework of a national plan to accomplish change and oust the corrupt and tyrannical regime.
Dear Brothers, Sisters, and Friends,
Syria has a long history in the cradle of civilization and humanity. It is at the crossroads of many religions and cultures and remains the land of love, tolerance and peace. Thanks to the great sacrifices of her children, democratic forces, and the help of the free world, it will soon be the land of freedom, rule of law, citizenship, volunteerism, and prosperity.
God bless the righteous heroes of liberty and peace. God’s mercy and blessings be upon you.
[SKS comment: SNC needs to demonstrate commitment to respecting diversity, and to having a willingness to work alongside others as equals]
UK FCO: Speaking following his attendance, the Foreign Secretary said:
“I’ve had a very encouraging meeting with the leaders of the Syrian National Council (SNC), who have stated very strongly their commitment to democratic principles, to trying to unify opposition groups to the protection of minorities in a future Syria, a very important issue. And indeed the leader of the SNC has given a powerful speech to the conference based on those principles, setting out the vision of a future democratic Syria.
“I think that has made a very powerful impact on all the countries represented here. I think it reinforces what I said earlier about recognising them as a legitimate representative of the Syrian people. And we’ve also seen from, from everyone who has spoken so far a real determination to tighten a diplomatic and economic stranglehold on the Assad regime; to make greater efforts to coordinate humanitarian assistance and to return to the United Nations Security Council with this issue. And so it is a very determined and forceful event”.
Speaking about the nature of the Syrian opposition, the Foreign Secretary said:
“Well there are other representatives as well as the SNC, and that’s why we say ‘a legitimate representative of the Syrian people’. We are encouraging them to bring together as many of the opposition groups as possible, based on common principles. But of course they are not in control – the Syrian National Council – of any of the territory of Syria. This is therefore a different situation than that we faced in Libya last year. But I do believe they are making progress. I do believe they justify our intensified support and that’s why we are working with them. So I have offered the political opposition outside Syria additional, practical help and I believe that they are doing the right things and that they will be able to bring greater unity to the opposition in Syria”.
Speaking about the impact of the Friends of Syria meeting on the situation on the ground, the Foreign Secretary said:
“Of course it won’t change it immediately and there is immense frustration about that. But this is a situation that has now gone on for nearly a year in which more than seven thousand people have died. So we have to intensify the pressure. We have to continue all this work. I think that the fact that so many countries have come together and will now be taking many measures together – diplomatic measures, reducing diplomatic ties, increasing the economic pressure and so on. I think that is going to make a steadily greater impact, frustratingly slow though that is”.
This meeting is the latest move by the international community to back the Arab League’s plan for a Syrian-led solution to the crisis, following the United Nations General Assembly Resolution on 16 February. Key aims for the meeting are to:
- Demonstrate widespread international support for the Arab League plan, and increase the level of that support;
- Put further pressure on the Assad regime, including by encouraging other countries to follow the EU, US and Arab League lead on sanctions and pressing work to ensure accountability for human rights abuses;
- Increase support for the political opposition – by encouraging it to come together around the Syrian National Counci (SNC). It is crucial that it develops a united vision and a strategy;
- Press for immediate, free and safe humanitarian access while ensuring a co-ordinated international response under the UN. The meeting will also look at economic recovery.
In the Foreign Secretary’s intervention he said:
“I am grateful to the Government of Tunisia for hosting this landmark meeting and to the Arab League for their leadership.
Today we must show that we will not abandon the Syrian people in their darkest hour. We must take five important steps:
First, we have widened our international coalition to more than sixty nations from five continents, and it will be strengthened further in the future. Those who back the Syrian regime from now on will find themselves in an even more isolated and indefensible minority.
Second, we should impose a diplomatic and economic stranglehold on the Assad regime. As Friends of Syria we must shut every door in its face and choke off support for its campaign of terror. So we must stop all oil purchases from Syria and all investment in Syria; restrict the regime’s access to arms and to fuel for their military vehicles; reduce diplomatic ties with Syria and apply assets freezes and travel bans. I call on all nations here to adopt without delay concrete sanctions that will have an effect on the regime, and I am confident that at the European Union we will add to them in the coming days.
Third, we should help Syria’s political opposition groups, applauding the vision that the SNC set out today for the future of their country, based on democratic principles and the protection of all Syrians. Syria should not belong to one family, to one coterie, or to one Party. It belongs to all the people of Syria equally, in all their religious and ethnic diversity. By miring itself in the blood of innocent people the Syrian regime has forfeited the right to lead. So from today we should recognise the Syrian National Council as a legitimate representative of the Syrian people.
Fourth, we should provide all necessary humanitarian assistance for Syrians affected by the violence, and make immediate preparations, including in neighbouring countries. Britain will play an active part in these efforts, and I call on others to do the same.
And fifth, we should pledge an end to impunity for crimes against humanity. Those responsible for the murder of entire families, the shelling of homes, the execution of detainees, the cleansing of political opponents and the torture and rape of women and children must be held to account. We have the will and the means to do this. Britain is helping to document crimes with those who have fled the violence. They should be no hiding place for those committing crimes.
By taking these measures today our message to the Syrian people is this:
We will bring all possible pressure to bear for a credible ceasefire and a political transition in accordance with the Arab League plan.
We will use all diplomatic and economic means to stop the activities of what has now become a criminal regime.
We will make it harder for them to terrorise you, by cutting off their funds and supplies.
We will help you unite and agree a political future for your country on your terms.
And we will provide the aid and humanitarian assistance you desperately need, and help you obtain justice for the crimes you have endured.
The measures we have adopted today are only a beginning.
We will not have succeeded until the bombardment of civilians has stopped and the requirements of the Arab League peace plan have been met. So the Arab League will have the full support of the United Kingdom in returning to the United Nations Security Council once again. We must show our resolve in the coming days and weeks and be prepared urgently to take further steps as the situation requires, and for as long as is required, to save lives and restore peace to Syria.”
- The first meeting of the Group of Friends of the Syrian People (“the Friends’ Group”), was held in Tunis on 24 February 2012, with the participation of more than 60 countries and representatives from the United Nations, the League of Arab States, the European Union, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, the Arab Maghreb Union and the Cooperation Council for the Arab Gulf States to discuss the worsening situation in Syria.
- The Friends’ Group reaffirmed its firm commitment to the sovereignty, independence, national unity and territorial integrity of Syria. It expressed strong condemnation of the Syrian regime’s ongoing, widespread, and systematic human rights violations, including: the indiscriminate use of force against civilians; the killing and persecution of peaceful protestors; and sexual violence and ill-treatment of thousands of detainees, including children. The Syrian regime’s brutal actions over the past eleven months have led to the death of thousands of innocent civilians, caused widespread destruction, forced tens of thousands of Syrians to flee their homes, and created widespread suffering among the Syrian people. Journalists portraying the truth about what is happening in Syria have paid with their lives. The Group viewed the regime’s use of heavy artillery and tanks to attack residential areas of cities and towns as particularly reprehensible. The atrocities committed, as the UN Independent Commission of Inquiry has said, amount in some cases to crimes against humanity.
- The Friends’ Group affirmed its goal of a peaceful non-military solution to this crisis that meets the aspirations of the Syrian people for dignity, freedom, peace, reform, democracy, prosperity and stability. The Friends’ Group recognized that this solution should address the concern of all citizens of Syria, regardless of their religion or ethnicity. It expressed its strongest possible concern about the situation in Syria and called for the following steps to be taken as a matter of urgency:
Support for the League of Arab States
- The Friends’ Group commended the League of Arab States for their leadership on this issue and welcomed the League’s actions and proposals to achieve a peaceful resolution of the crisis. It underlined the need for an immediate end to all violence and for the full implementation of the decisions and resolutions of the League of Arab States on the situation in Syria, notably resolutions 7444 of 22 January 2012 and 7446 of 12 February 2012, that, inter alia, call for the Syrian government to:
- Cease all violence and protect its population;
- Release all persons arbitrarily detained due to the recent incidents;
- Withdraw all Syrian military and armed forces from cities and towns, and return them to their original home barracks;
- Guarantee the freedom of peaceful demonstrations; and
- Allow full and unhindered access and movement for all relevant League of Arab States’ institutions and Arab and international media in all parts of Syria to determine the truth about the situation on the ground and monitor the incidents taking place.
- The Friends’ Group called for an inclusive Syrian-led political process conducted in an environment free from violence, fear, intimidation and extremism and aimed at addressing the legitimate aspirations and concerns of Syria’s people. The Friends’ Group noted that the Syrian government’s effort to impose unilaterally a set of political steps labeled as reforms would not resolve the crisis.
- In this regard, the Friends’ Group set out its full support for the League of Arab States’ initiative to facilitate a political transition leading to a democratic, plural political system in which citizens enjoy equal rights regardless of their affiliations or ethnicities, beliefs or gender, including through commencing a serious political dialogue between the Syrian government and the Syrian opposition aimed at:
- Formation of a national unity government;
- Delegation by the President of Syria of his full authority to his First Deputy to cooperate fully with the national unity government in order to empower it to perform its duties in the transitional period; and
- Transparent and free elections under Arab and international supervision.
- In this regard, the Friends’ Group welcomed the appointment of Kofi Annan as the Joint Special Envoy of the United Nations and the League of Arab States on the Syria Crisis.
Accountability for Regime Actions
- The Friends’ Group expressed disappointment that the United Nations Security Council had thus far been blocked from responding to the League of Arab States’ repeated appeals for support and for its plan to end the violence in Syria. The Friends’ Group calls on the Security Council to work with the League of Arab States and other interested parties to take effective action against the Syrian regime’ gross human rights violations, and to bring about an end to the violence against civilians. The Group underlined the need to end impunity and to hold those responsible for perpetrating crimes against the Syrian people to account.
- The Friends’ Group welcomed the adoption by the UN General Assembly on 16 February of resolution 66/253 which strongly condemned the repression in Syria and demanded that the Syrian regime implement the Plan of Action of the Arab League of 2 November, and its decisions of 22 January and 12 February without delay. In view of the significant support for this resolution, the Group called for the United Nations Security Council to fulfil its responsibilities on Syria by returning to this issue as soon as possible. The Group also welcomed the continued involvement of the Human Rights Council and called on the Syrian regime to cooperate fully with the independent Commission of Inquiry. It welcomed the report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic of 22 February 2012.
- The Friends’ Group set out its determination to continue to take relevant political, diplomatic and economic measures to press the Syrian regime to stop all acts of violence and to prevent the regime from generating further instability in the region. In this regard, 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. These should include:
- Travel bans on members of the regime;
- Freezing their assets;
- Ceasing the purchase of Syrian hydrocarbon products;
- Ceasing infrastructure investment in, and financial services relating to, Syria;
- To reduce diplomatic ties with the Syrian regime; and
- Preventing the shipment of arms and related materials to the Syrian regime; and studying means of restricting the Syrian regime’s access to fuel and other supplies used for military purposes.
Support for the Opposition
- The Friends’ Group commended the courage and determination of Syrians on the ground, who are the vanguard of the Syrian people seeking freedom and dignity. In this context, it also praised the work of the Syrian National Council (SNC) to form a broad and inclusive body and encouraged them to continue these efforts.
- To this end, the Friends’ Group recognised the Syrian National Council as a legitimate representative of Syrians seeking peaceful democratic change. The Group agreed to increase its engagement with and practical support for the Syrian opposition. The Friends’ Group encouraged the Syrian National Council to pursue its actions in a spirit of unity and to support the vision of an inclusive, prosperous and free Syria that protects its citizens and generates stability in the region, and where all citizens enjoy equal rights.
- The Friends’ Group called on the Arab League to convene a meeting around the Syrian National Council with a range of opposition groups and individuals, including those inside Syria, committed to a peaceful political transition, in order for them to agree on:
- A representative coordination mechanism for working together before, during and after a transition period;
- A clear statement of shared principles for a transition in Syria, according to relevant covenants and resolutions of the United Nations regarding human, social and political rights, as well as a commitment to a civil, representative future government that safeguards the rights of minorities.
- The Friends’ Group expressed its strong concern about the humanitarian situation in Syria, including the lack of access to basic food, medicine and fuel, as well as threats and acts of violence to medical staff, patients and facilities, in some areas. It reiterated the need urgently to address humanitarian needs, and to facilitate effective delivery of assistance and to ensure safe access to medical treatment. The Friends’ Group called on the Syrian government immediately to cease all violence and to allow free and unimpeded access by the UN and humanitarian agencies to carry out a full assessment of needs in Homs and other areas. It demanded that the Syrian regime immediately permit humanitarian agencies to deliver vital relief goods and services to civilians affected by the violence, especially in Homs, Deraa, Zabadani and other areas under siege by the Syrian security forces. The Friends’ Group agreed that, if the Syrian regime stopped its assault on civilian areas and permitted access, it would deliver humanitarian supplies immediately. The Friends’ Group also noted the serious and growing burden carried by Syria’s neighbours in hosting refugees from Syria and committed to provide appropriate support and assistance in this regard.
- To this end, the Friends’ Group welcomed the United Nations’ efforts to coordinate the humanitarian response, including funding, under the leadership of the Emergency Relief Coordinator. The Group welcomed the Emergency Relief Coordinator’s intention to visit Syria to engage with all parties to allow impartial access for humanitarian assistance. The Group also supported the establishment by international humanitarian agencies of Humanitarian Operational Hubs in neighbouring countries. It welcomed the creation of the Syria Humanitarian Forum and pledged support to the body in its role as a working group to coordinate international assistance. It reinforced the importance of maintaining a clear distinction between the humanitarian response and the ongoing political negotiations.
- The Friends’ Group also declared its firm commitment to contribute substantially to rebuilding Syria in the process of transition and to support the future economic recovery of the country. To this end, the Group decided to create a working group on economic recovery and development.
- The Friends’ Group expressed their thanks and appreciation to Tunisia for hosting this international conference. The Group agreed to meet again in Turkey in the near future. The Group also agreed that the following meeting would be hosted by France.
Western and Arab nations mounted the biggest diplomatic push in weeks to end Syria’s crackdown on the opposition on Friday, but the talk in a marble-lined Tunisian hotel risked being overtaken by the increasingly vicious armed conflict on the ground.
Foreign ministers from more than 50 countries in Tunis for the inaugural “Friends of Syria” meeting marshaled international condemnation of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and ratcheted up the pressure on him to step dcown.
They met against the backdrop of a surge in government attacks on the city of Homs, an opposition stronghold, and mounting world outrage over violence that has killed thousands of people during the uprising.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned Assad — and his backers inside Syria and abroad — that they will be held to account for the crackdown on opponents and what she described as a humanitarian catastrophe in Syria.
Addressing her comments to Russia and China, which vetoed tough action on Syria in the United Nations, she said: “They are setting themselves not only against the Syrian people but also the entire Arab awakening.”
“It’s quite distressing to see permanent members of the Security Council using their veto when people are being murdered – women, children, brave young men — houses are being destroyed. It is just despicable.”
“I am convinced Assad’s days are numbered, but I regret that there will be more killing before he goes,” she said.
Diplomatic moves though are hamstrung by the fact that, so far at least, there is little appetite for military intervention in Syria and attempts to ease Assad out via the United Nations Security Council have been stymied by Russian and Chinese vetoes.
Beijing and Moscow declined invitations to attend the meeting in Tunisia.
In a tacit acknowledgement that the scope for pressuring Assad through diplomacy is limited, some of the delegates at the conference — especially Gulf states long opposed to Assad — pressed for an international peacekeeping force in Syria and favored arming the Syrian rebels.
The Syrian opposition, meanwhile, appeared to be taking matters into its own hands, saying it was supplying weapons to rebels inside Syria while Western and other states turned a blind eye.
Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal led the hawkish camp, saying that arming the Syrian rebels would be “an excellent idea.”
Another hawk, Qatar’s Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani told the Tunis meeting an Arab force should be created to open and protect humanitarian corridors between opposition strongholds and Syria’s neighbors.
LANGUAGE OF FORCE
Several representatives from the Syrian National Council (SNC), the main opposition group, said the conflict was increasingly entering a military dimension.
“We would have hoped that we could bring down the regime through completely peaceful means but the regime practiced violence and only understands the language of force,” said SNC official Bassam Ishaak at the Tunis meeting.
“They came to power by force and they will only leave by force,” he said.
Nevertheless, there was no mention in the “Friends of Syria” final communique of any plans for intervention, or arming the Syrian rebels.
Many Arab states which traditionally have had friendly ties with the Assad administration feel that further militarizing the crisis would tip Syria into a dangerous sectarian quagmire that could destabilize the whole region.
The Tunis meeting, in its final declaration, called on Assad to immediately cease all violence and allow access for humanitarian supplies. By late on Friday, the Red Cross said it had been able to reach Homs and was evacuating some of the wounded and sick women and children.
The “Friends of Syria” also committed to ratchet up sanctions on Syria. These would include travel bans on senior Syrian officials, freezing their assets, boycotting Syrian oil, suspending investments and preventing arms supplies to the government.
A diplomat attending the conference said the aim was to send a message to those who were wavering, especially the Syrian business community, that Assad was a lost cause.
“The point is to make the transition look more inevitable,” said the diplomat.
The session in Tunis saw moves towards greater engagement with the often-fractious Syrian opposition.
Foreign governments see a coherent opposition movement that can represent all of Syria’s different ethnic and religious groups – in essence, a government-in-waiting – as a vital precursor to pushing out Assad.
The communique identified the Syrian National Council as “a legitimate representative of Syrians seeking peaceful change.” The meeting’s chair, Tunisian Foreign Minister Rafik Abdessalem, said the group’s next meeting in Turkey would grant a fuller endorsement.
“We have gone half the way and we will probably do the other half in Turkey,” he said.