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 lives.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 Mediterranean.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 groups.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.Michael Weiss, 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.”One 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.“So I 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 for intervention.”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 Journal. “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 the regime.”