Chinese diplomats in Damascus_390.
(photo credit: Reuters)
Western and Arab states plan to hold a “Friends of Syria” contact group meeting
this week, but analysts say there is little hope for a diplomatic breakthrough
in a conflict that has dragged on for nearly a year and claimed at least 6,000
On Tuesday, Russia said it would not be present at Friday’s
Friends summit in Tunisia, insisting it would only attend if a representative of
the Syrian regime were invited as well.
Moscow said it backs Syrian
President Bashar Assad’s own reform plan for a popular referendum and multiparty
elections. The Syrian opposition – cognizant of the regime’s long history of
unfulfilled reform pledges – has dismissed the proposal out of hand, and
Washington derided it as “laughable.”
Earlier this month Russia and China
vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that would have condemned Assad’s
crackdown on anti-government activity.
Russia is a decades-long Syrian
ally – Damascus buys large quantities of arms from its former Cold War patron
and leases land on its coast for a Russian naval port on the
China has more modest trade with Damascus, but its
extensive energy relations with Russia make it wary of crossing Moscow by not
toeing its line on Syria.
On Tuesday, China remained noncommittal on
whether it would attend the Tunisia summit, with a spokesman saying only that
Beijing had “received the relevant invitation,” and was “researching the
function, mechanism and other aspects of the meeting.” China, he said, was
“willing to play a constructive role with all sides for the peaceful resolution
of the Syrian crisis.”
Attending the meeting will be foreign ministers
from the US and UK, as well as EU and Arab League states. Also in attendance
will be the opposition Syrian National Council and other opposition
What exactly the the Friends of Syria hopes to achieve is not
altogether clear. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the meeting would
be aimed at showing Assad he was increasingly isolated internationally, as well
as offering symbolic support for “the brave Syrian people.”
“We’ll send a
clear message to Russia, China and others who are still unsure about how to
handle the increasing violence but are up until now unfortunately making the
wrong choices,” she said. Other US officials have described the summit as a way
to circumvent the Russian and Chinese vetoes at the UN.
director of communications for the Henry Jackson Society in London, said
recognizing the Syrian National Council is one of the few diplomatic options
left. “If Western states could recognize the SNC at this summit, that would be
the ultimate rebuke to Assad,” he said, “but the problem is that the SNC is a
work in progress, one with a disproportionately high level of Islamist
participation – particularly in its upper echelon – and not enough
representation of minority groups.
“Diplomatic options have been all but
exhausted,” Weiss said by phone from the British capital. “The only way this
regime is going to go if it is forced to. I think ultimately some kind of
military intervention will be undertaken, the nature of which will be determined
by the extent and scope of the brutality over the next few months.”
of the more contentious topics of discussion at Friday’s meeting will be whether
to arm the Free Syrian Army, a collection of militias consisting of army
defectors and other anti-government fighters.
Visiting Afghanistan this
weekend, US Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham outlined ways in which to
help push Assad out of power.
The lawmakers, both Republicans, cited
military aid as one such option but said that would not necessarily include
direct US intervention.
“I believe there are ways to get weapons to the
opposition without direct United States involvement,” McCain said. “The Iranians
and the Russians are providing Bashar Assad with weapons. People that are
being massacred deserve to have the ability to defend themselves.
am not only not opposed, but I am in favor of weapons being obtained by the
opposition,” he added.
Still, Weiss said, there is little appetite either
internationally or in Washington for a Libya-style military campaign. “We’ve
heard the NATO chief categorically rule out intervention, and US officials have
said there is no will for it. The closest thing we’ve seen to a call for
intervention was the French proposal to the Security Council – implementing
humanitarian corridors. But humanitarian corridors are really just a euphemism
An SNC spokeswoman said she hoped this week’s meeting
would be aimed at coordinating rebel activity on the ground. “The responsibility
of the SNC is to ensure that the groups on the ground are connected with each
other and come under an integrated command,” Bassma Kodmani told The Wall Street
“We expect the Free Syrian Army to be recognized as an important
player, because defections from the army are our best hope for a rapid fall of
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