'Friends of Syria' to crank up pressure

2012-03-30 13:04

Istanbul - Dozens of world's top diplomats are set to gather on Sunday in Istanbul to turn up pressure on Damascus to abide by a peace plan that could finally end violence in Syria.

Representatives of 71 countries are expected, at Sunday's "Friends of Syria" conference, to come up with measures to ward off a Damascus backtrack on Kofi Annan's peace initiative, approved by Syrian President Bashar Assad on Tuesday.

"The main objective of this conference is to increase the pressure on the Syrian regime to end the bloody repression" said a Turkish official on Thursday.

Annan, the UN-Arab League envoy, will however be absent due to a presentation he will deliver for UN on Monday, he added.

The conference, like its predecessor in Tunis late February, will again lack participation from Russia and China, the two supporters of an Assad regime now shunned by its Arabic neighbours and most of its former Western allies.

Western and Arabic representatives, fearing a continuation of the killings despite the ostensive agreement, will evaluate whether to hit Damascus with more sanctions while providing broader aid to its opposition.

Clinton to attend meeting

"We're going to be continuing to look at what more we can do on the sanctions side to pressure the regime," US State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said on Wednesday of the conference in Istanbul.

"And obviously, we'll all be comparing notes on how we can support Kofi Annan, particularly on the important point of getting Assad to meet the commitment that he's made," she said.

The State Department earlier announced that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will attend the meeting.

The conference does not aim at paralleling Annan's initiative, but rather act as an endorsement for it, a European diplomatic source said.

"The EU wants to accompany the diplomatic mission by Annan and respond positively if he needs support," he noted.

The meeting of the diplomats in Turkey comes after dozens die following Assad's acceptance of Annan's plan calling for an end to the violence, a daily two-hour humanitarian ceasefire and access to all areas affected by the fighting in Syria.

Renouncement of violence

"After months of broken promises, France and the international community will judge [Assad] on his actions" French foreign ministry spokesperson Bernard Valero said on Wednesday.

Germany joined in the calls on the urgent implementation of the UN-Arab League envoy's plan to end violence, warning that the regime would be judged on deeds, not words.

"After so many deaths, we are in a situation where only a complete renouncement of violence helps," stressed German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle, who will be representing Germany at the Istanbul meeting.

Opposition factions agreed early this week to name the Syrian National Council as their representative and called on Assad to pull back his tanks to show he was serious about peace.

Turkey salutes the fact that the opposition is now more united, the Turkish official noted as he voiced the possibility that an "international fund" might be initiated to aid civilian victims, including about 17 000 Syrians it currently hosts on its soil.

On Sunday, Turkey and the United States agreed on the need to send "non-lethal" aid to Syrian rebels, including communications equipment, as Saudi Arabia and Qatar have called for arming the opposition army made up of defectors.

Inclusive process

Although discussions on non-lethal aid for Syrians will continue in Istanbul, western diplomats are wary of arming the opposition fearing that such a move might increase casualties in the conflict with weapons turning up in the hands of Islamist extremists.

Annan's plan also calls for an inclusive Syrian-led political process, a right to demonstrate, and the release of people detained arbitrarily in the more than one-year long dissent that has claimed more than 9 000 lives according to monitors.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon, who urged Assad on Wednesday to immediately implement the peace plan, will also be absent from the Istanbul conference.