"Friends of Syria" to demand access for aid

Reuters News
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Posted: Feb 23, 2012 12:44 PM
"Friends of Syria" to demand access for aid

By Lin Noueihed

TUNIS (Reuters) - Western and Arab powers meeting in Tunis on Friday will demand President Bashar al-Assad agree to a ceasefire to let in aid for victims of Syria's intensifying conflict - but a Libya-style military intervention is not on the agenda.

The "Friends of Syria" group of states comes together as international outrage over Assad's repression of unrest has reached unprecedented levels, galvanized by the bombardment of the city of Homs, where scores have died this week and tanks moved into the rebel stronghold on Thursday.

But with moves for tougher action in the United Nations stymied and no appetite for foreign military action, there is little prospect of decisive steps to end the 11-month crackdown on opposition to Assad's rule.

The United States, Britain, France and Turkey are among about 70 nations joining the first meeting of the new group in the Tunisian capital.

A draft of the declaration from the meeting, obtained by Reuters, called on Syria to implement an immediate ceasefire to allow the United Nations access to Homs, and to let aid agencies deliver aid to civilians affected by the violence.

"One of the things you are going to see coming out of the meeting tomorrow are concrete proposals on how we, the international community, plan to support humanitarian organizations ... within days, meaning that the challenge is on the Syrian regime to respond to this," said a senior U.S. official.

Asked if the group's call would amount to an ultimatum, a second U.S. official told reporters: "It is a challenge."

The draft declaration stopped short of fully endorsing the Syrian National Council (SNC), the most prominent group opposed to Assad. Instead, it said the "Friends of Syria" recognized the council as "a legitimate representative of Syrians seeking peaceful democratic change."

HARSH REALITY

Absent from the draft - which could still change between now and the end of the meeting - was any mention of foreign military intervention along the lines of the bombing campaign which helped force out Libya's Muammar Gaddafi.

Instead it called for a ratcheting up of diplomatic pressure on al-Assad to step down. It endorsed an Arab League plan for him to hand over to a deputy, and said members were committed to tighter sanctions on his administration.

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 are vetoing anti-Assad resolutions in the U.N. Security Council and his opponents in Syria are not united into a cohesive opposition movement.

With other options limited, humanitarian aid is set to be a major focus of the meeting in Tunis, a symbolic venue because it was here last year that the "Arab Spring" upheavals started.

"There must be a quick decision to allow in medicines and food to reduce the suffering of the people," Ahmed Ben Helli, the deputy chief of the Arab League, told Reuters in Tunis.

HUMANITARIAN CORRIDORS

The Syrian opposition council announced it would ask the "Friends of Syria" to prioritize the creation of humanitarian corridors.

Senior SNC official Basma Kodmani said the group would request that Russia persuade Assad to allow safe passage for humanitarian convoys, avoiding the need for military force to protect them. The SNC will call for the creation of corridors from Lebanon to Homs, Turkey to Idlib and Jordan to Deraa.

The SNC would also urge the "Friends of Syria" to create safe zones for refugees in border areas.

Unlike Arab and Western proposals to pile diplomatic pressure on Assad to go, the humanitarian initiative is gaining traction in Russia, which declined to attend the Tunis meeting.

"Those reluctant for a political solution, such as Russia, may have to cooperate on humanitarian assistance. I don't see how Russia or China can be opposed if it is negotiated with them," Kodmani said.

U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos is expected to head to Syria soon to try to secure access for aid workers.

The International Committee for the Red Cross is also working with Syrian authorities and opposition for daily ceasefires to allow aid to be delivered and casualties to be evacuated. That initiative may be more likely to win Syrian government approval than permanent safe zones or corridors.

A spokesman at France's Foreign Ministry said the Tunis conference "will illustrate the total isolation of the regime of Bashar al-Assad. It will recall that the international community has condemned the regime's venture into criminality."

Also on the agenda will be moves to help the fractious Syrian opposition consolidate so it can better work with the Arab League and the international community to ease Assad out.

Concerns over opposition splits have complicated the debate on what kind of support to offer Syria's rebels.

States who want al-Assad out have contemplated arming Syrian rebels, but both Arab and Syrian opposition sources say that support is likely, in the first instance, to be of a technical and logistical nature, helping rebels inside Syria coordinate with each other and with their supporters in exile.

"The problem is that there is a lack of coordination on the ground because of the lack of technical capabilities and lack of cash," said Omar Sheikh Ibrahim, a Syrian opposition activist based in Tunisia.

"Hopefully, with aid coming in after this conference, we will be able to improve communications and coordination with technical and logistical equipment like Thuraya (satellite) phones."

(Additional reporting by Dominic Evans in Beirut, Arshad Mohammed in London, John Irish in Paris, Ayman Samir in Cairo, Adrian Croft in London, Robert Evans in Geneva; Writing by Lin Noueihed and Christian Lowe; Editing by Sophie Hares)