Syrian ‘Friends’ demand timeline on Annan mission

Foreign ministers from dozens of countries gather to set conditions for a new Syria, pushing for tighter sanctions and diplomatic pressure to further isolate President Bashar Assad, while urging the opposition to offer a democratic alternative to his regime, in İstanbul, Sunday, April 1, 2012. (Photo: AP)

April 01, 2012, Sunday/ 17:42:00

A communiqué issued on Sunday by a meeting of mainly Arab and Western governments in İstanbul gives full support to UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan's peace mission while stressing that it cannot be open-ended.

Foreign dignitaries from 83 nations issued the declaration in İstanbul on Sunday during the second meeting of the “Friends of the Syrian People,” where leaders discussed the UN-Arab League cease-fire amid protests from Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Syria's opposition that the plan is buying time for the Syrian regime.

"The legitimate demands of the Syrian people must be met, right here, right now,” Erdoğan told the assembly during his opening remarks. “There is a strong probability that Assad, who has repeatedly pledged to end the brutality to the international community, will use the UN plan in order to buy more time. We believe that a plan which would convene oppressors and the oppressed at the same table would be manipulated by the Syrian regime to continue more violence,” he stated.

Other members on Sunday signaled their support for the six-point peace plan, with Arab League chief Nabil al-Araby saying that the council's “first priority” should be ensuring the implementation of “any measure which will stop the flow of blood.” Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad al-Thani meanwhile urged that the plan be used to bring the regime and the opposition to the table, stating that “this council and the UN plan must support an inclusive dialogue between the government of Syria and the diverse elements of the opposition.”

The pro-reconciliation remarks from Qatar, a vocal advocate of regime change in Syria, signaled the international community’s growing desperation to end hostilities in a year-long conflict which has taken upwards of 10,000 lives.

A Western diplomat warned Reuters on Sunday that the implementation of the peace deal cannot be open-ended, and a statement released after the meeting called on the UN Joint Special Envoy “to determine a timeline for the next steps, including a return to the UN security council if the killing continues.

Syria’s political opposition, however, renounced calls for dialogue with the regime, with Syrian opposition leader Burhan Ghalioun telling the council: “The international community should see that there is no political reconciliation with the regime. It is in fact using this as a means to gain more time and exert more violence.” Ghalioun, who heads the anti-regime Syrian National Council (SNC), called for concrete promises to aid the opposition and said that the council should “take responsibility and never allow this regime to feel at ease.” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton echoed the opposition’s doubt about dialogue with the Syrian government, saying of the peace plan that “nearly a week has gone by, and we have to conclude that the regime is adding to its long list of broken promises.”

Even the peace deal’s backers acknowledged on Sunday that violence had shown little sign of abating since veteran Annan’s deal with Damascus on Tuesday. Syrian security forces continued to hound opposition forces in Syria’s restive north throughout the week and on Tuesday entered Lebanese territory to oust rebels seeking refuge across the border. Over the weekend Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdisi declared victory over the rebellion on state television, stating that “the battle to topple the state is over.” Opposition activists reported at least 16 people killed on Sunday, most in the country’s eastern and northwestern provinces. Implementation of any cease-fire agreement has been hampered by the regime and opposition’s parallel demands that the other lay down weapons first.

As outside powers remain hesitant about opposition calls for military aid and a “humanitarian intervention” in Syria, however, Sunday’s talks inevitably rested on the hopes that the deal might still lead to a temporary cessation in hostilities. Along with calling for a cease-fire and talks, the plan would also deploy UN monitors to Syria, though the details of the observer mission’s scope and mandate remain unknown. Damascus is also required under the plan to withdraw its military from cities and honor a daily two-hour pause in hostilities which would allow the delivery of humanitarian aid. The plan does not require Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to relinquish power.

Opposition calls for recognition, military support

Syrian National Council (SNC) President Ghalioun appealed to the assembly on Sunday to view Syria’s opposition forces as a cohesive alternative to Assad’s government and called for help establishing a “robust army that will protect the Syrian people.”

The “Friends” council defined the group on Sunday as “the leading interlocutor of the opposition with the international community,” a step up from its definition of the SNC during the inaugural meeting in February as “a legitimate representative of the Syrian people.” The group has fought against criticism that it is dominated by the moderate-Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and incapable of gathering Syria’s diverse opposition voices under one umbrella. In hopes of being recognized as the sole representative of the opposition, the SNC met with minority opposition groups this week in İstanbul and agreed on a “national charter” for a tolerant, democratic post-Assad government. Speaking of the charter on Sunday, Ghalioun said the SNC “seeks to create a democratic Syria without discrimination on any grounds… and we will never seek to take revenge on minorities or those who benefitted from the regime, we will seek fairness and justice.”

Promises that the SNC was increasing its efforts at inclusion won the endorsement of British Foreign Secretary William Hague, who told the BBC on Sunday that “we are stepping up our support for the opposition in Syria.”

Ghalioun also reiterated the group’s repeated calls for outside aid to the country’s beleaguered armed opposition, the lightly armed military deserters known as the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Clinton stated on Sunday “non-lethal” aid such as communications equipment was on its way to the opposition forces, stating that “we are discussing with our international partners how best to expand this support.”

But the plan, which has also been endorsed by Turkey, may do little to assuage opposition fears that the badly undergunned FSA will remain at the mercy of the equipped Syrian military. Last month, a Reuters report suggested that the FSA’s already primary source of weapons, the black market in Lebanon, was drying up, while Saudi Arabia and Qatar had reneged earlier promises of weapons deliveries.

An AP report on Sunday nevertheless suggested that Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states were preparing “a multimillion-dollar fund” for the FSA, the first financial support for the group, but a measure which would not include the direct transfer of arms. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said on Saturday that arming the rebels should be seen by the “Friends of Syria” as a “duty.”

Turkey enters dialogue with Iran on Syria

Sunday’s meeting followed a visit by Erdoğan to Syria’s regional backer Iran, who the prime minister said “also wants the deaths to end.”

Erdoğan indicated that after a round of meetings with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the two had agreed on an endorsement for “free and transparent elections.” Speaking to the Turkish press on Saturday, Erdoğan hinted that Turkey might work to coax the opposition into talks and said that “a ballot box should be placed in front of the Syrian people… whoever the people of Syria want will be in office.”

SNC spokesperson Basma Kodmani cautioned, in remarks to Today’s Zaman on Saturday, that Tehran was likely to play for time with a Turkish and Iranian plan for new elections in Syria, but stated that “Turkey is in a position to ask the Iranian regime legitimately to cease its support and stop delivering arms and means for repression for those engaged in the surveillance of the population and terrorizing the population.”

Turkey and the majority of the international community have largely abandoned efforts to pressure the regime into elections or constitutional reforms, with a Syrian constitutional referendum in February decried by critics as “creaky political theater” and symptomatic of the regime’s cynicism towards reform.

Turkey’s efforts to “bring over” Iran on the issue of Syria mirrors the wider attempts by the US and European powers in recent months to see backing from pro-Assad Russia and China. The two nations exercised their veto power in the UN Security Council last year to spare Damascus from a UN condemnation and sanctions, but recently approved a non-binding Security Council resolution calling for an end to violence in Syria.

The “Friends of Syria” alliance will meet next in France, although a date has not yet been determined.

*Gözde Nur Donat contributed to this article from İstanbul.

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