The United States, Europe and Arab nations are preparing to demand that Syrian President Bashar Assad agree within days to a ceasefire and allow humanitarian aid into areas hardest hit by his regime's brutal crackdown on opponents.
U.S., European and Arab officials were meeting in London on Thursday to craft details of an ultimatum to Assad that diplomats said could demand compliance within 72 hours or result in additional as-yet-unspecified punitive measures, likely to include toughened sanctions. The ultimatum is to be presented at a major international conference on Syria set for Friday in Tunisia.
American officials accompanying U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to the Tunis meeting of the "Friends of Syria" said the goal is to make it clear to Assad that his regime has a moral obligation to end the shelling of civilian areas and allow assistance into the country. The message will be that the burden is on Assad to respond to the demands of the international community, they said.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the ongoing discussions over how the ultimatum will be presented at the Tunis conference. Several nations have proposed creating protected corridors through which humanitarian relief can flow but it was not clear if a consensus could be reached on the matter, as such a step would almost certainly require a military component.
More workable, officials said, would be a ceasefire such as the one proposed by the International Committee of the Red Cross, which is calling for a daily two-hour break in fighting to provide aid.
Clinton met Thursday in London with foreign ministers and senior officials from about a dozen countries, including Britain, France, Germany, Jordan, Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates. More than 70 nations and international organizations are expected at the Tunis meeting.
"The efforts that we are undertaking with the international community ... are intended to demonstrate the Assad regime's deepening isolation," Clinton told reporters. "Our immediate focus is on increasing the pressure. We have got to find ways of getting food, medicine and other humanitarian assistance. Into affected areas. This takes time and it takes a lot of diplomacy."
If Assad doesn't comply, "we think that the pressure will continue to build. ... I think that the strategy followed by the Syrians and their allies is one that can't stand the test of legitimacy ... for any length of time," Clinton said. "There will be increasingly capable opposition forces. They will from somewhere, somehow find the means to defend themselves as well as begin offensive measures."
White House spokesman Jay Carney, traveling to Florida with President Barack Obama on Air Force One, told reporters the Obama administration still opposes military intervention but "obviously we'll have to evaluate this as time goes on."
"Our priority is to facilitate the delivery of the humanitarian assistance, and we have some proposals on the table to prepare the best way to deliver this assistance as quickly as possible _ if the regime would accept to open the country to the NGOs or to the Red Cross," French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said after the discussions.
Juppe said the "situation in Syria gets more revolting, scandalous and shameful every day," but cautioned against any military response to the violence.
"There is no military option at the moment on the table, and as I have said before, France could not envisage such an option without an international mandate. It's a clear and constant guideline," Juppe said.
"It is a deeply frustrating situation," British Foreign Secretary William Hague told BBC radio ahead of the talks. He said that the Assad regime "has continued to act seemingly with impunity."
However, Hague said military intervention was very unlikely, as "the consequences of any outside intervention are much harder to foresee."
Russia and China, the two nations that blocked an earlier attempt at a UN Security Council resolution against Assad, reiterated on Thursday their continued opposition to any foreign intervention in Syria.
The Tunis conference will also explore ways to further isolate Assad and his inner circle as well as boost engagement with the Syrian opposition to help them prepare for an eventual democratic transition.
"I know there is huge pressure, rightly, on everyone in the world _ on the United Nations, on the United States, on Great Britain, on the Arab League, to do more to try to stop this butchery and this murder," Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron told reporters.
He said nations attending the Tunis talks must "work out what more we can do as an international community to back the opposition, to tighten the sanctions, to put pressure on that regime, to say to countries like Russia and China you must not go on blocking important U.N. resolution that would pressurize this regime."
Associated Press reporters David Stringer and Julie Pace contributed to this report.