'Friends of Syria' ready ultimatum for Assad
LONDON - The Associated Press
Tunisian Foreign Affairs Minister Rafik Abdessalem speaks during a press conference on February 17, 2012 in Tunis. AFP PhotoThe United States, European and Arab nations are set to deliver a stern warning to Syrian President Bashar Assad that he must agree to an immediate cease-fire and allow humanitarian aid into areas hardest hit by his regime's brutal crackdown on opponents, or face as-yet unspecified punishments and an increasingly emboldened and powerful armed resistance.
On the eve of a major international conference on Syria in Tunisia, U.S., European and Arab officials worked out details of the demands in London on Thursday as the former United Nations chief, Kofi Annan, was named to be a joint U.N.-Arab League envoy to deal with the crisis. Russia and China, foes of any intervention, reiterated their opposition to an international resolution.
Diplomats said the "Friends of Syria" group meeting in Tunis on Friday would demand Assad's compliance. They said that failure on his part would result in tougher sanctions and predicted that his opponents would grow stronger unless he accedes and accepts a political transition that would see him leave power.
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," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters in London after meeting about a dozen of her foreign minister colleagues to prepare for the Tunis event.
"There will be increasingly capable opposition forces," she said. "They will from somewhere, somehow find the means to defend themselves as well as begin offensive measures." Clinton and others ruled out any overt, direct lethal military aid to Assad's opponents, but her comments indicated that such steps were at least being considered if not already being done.
A draft of the Tunis conference's final document obtained by The Associated Press calls on "the Syrian government to implement an immediate cease-fire and to allow free and unimpeded access by the United Nations and humanitarian agencies to carry out a full assessment of needs in Homs and other areas." Homs, Syria's third-largest city, has been under a fierce government attack for nearly three weeks.
The draft, which is still subject to change, also demands "that humanitarian agencies be permitted to deliver vital relief goods and services to civilians affected by the violence." More than 5,400 people have been killed in the nearly year-old uprising.
Russia and China have vetoed two U.N. Security Council resolutions backing Arab League plans aimed at ending the conflict in Syria and condemning Assad's crackdown.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's office said he called his Chinese counterpart on Thursday and they "reaffirmed the joint position of Russia and China." Both countries support "a speedy end to any violence in Syria and the launch of inclusive dialogue between the authorities and the opposition without preconditions for a peaceful settlement that excludes foreign interference in Syrian affairs," the ministry said.
Meanwhile, Tunisia's presidential spokesman, Adnan Mancer, told the AP in an interview ahead of Friday's meeting that the North African country will propose a political solution to the Syrian crisis that includes the deployment of a peacekeeping force and Assad stepping down from power.
The political transition would be akin to what happened in Yemen, where president Ali Abdullah Saleh quit in favor of his deputy after widespread protests. The Arab League already has made similar calls on Assad.
To spur negotiations in that direction, the Arab League and United Nations on Thursday jointly appointed Annan, the former U.N. secretary-general, to be their special envoy to Syria with a mandate to bring an end to the violence and promote a peaceful political solution.
Annan will work on bringing an end to "all violence and human rights violations, and promoting a peaceful solution to the Syrian crisis," the two bodies said in a statement.
He will work with the government and opposition to forge "a peaceful Syrian-led and inclusive political solution that meets the democratic aspirations of the Syrian people through a comprehensive political dialogue between the Syrian government and the whole spectrum of the Syrian opposition," the statement said.
American officials accompanying Clinton to the Friends of Syria meeting said the group would make clear to Assad that his regime has a moral obligation to end the shelling of civilian areas and allow assistance into the country. The burden is on Assad to respond to the demands of the international community, they said.
"The efforts that we are undertaking with the international community ... are intended to demonstrate the Assad regime's deepening isolation," Clinton said. "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." Clinton met Thursday in London with Juppe and foreign ministers and senior officials from about a dozen countries, including Britain, 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.
Several nations have proposed creating protected corridors through which humanitarian relief could flow but it was not clear whether a consensus could be reached on the matter, as such a step almost certainly would require a military component.
"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," French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said after discussions in London.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said military intervention was very unlikely, noting that "the consequences of any outside intervention are much harder to foresee." More workable, officials said, would be a cease-fire 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.