x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Real friends of Syria should step up aid now

The Syrian stalemate shows signs of breaking up; it's time for the real friends of Syria to step up their efforts.

The Group of Friends of the Syrian People, a loose cluster of about 90 governments, is to meet again today, in Rome. Commonly called the "Friends of Syria", this assemblage has in its one year of existence held several hand-wringing conferences. But it has accomplished painfully little towards its unstated goal of helping Syrians liberate themselves from the government of Bashar Al Assad, and establish a better one. With friends like these, the bitter joke runs, Syria needs no enemies.

In fairness, the countries involved - from the US and big European countries to remote little "friends" like Belize - have been handcuffed by Russian and Chinese stonewalling at the UN Security Council. Without UN authorisation, more robust intervention is politically impossible.

But now there is a possible breeze of progress, arriving in Rome with John Kerry, the new US secretary of state. He hinted this week that the US is close to providing direct aid to the Syrian rebels.

Meanwhile Walid Al Moallem, Syria's foreign minister, said for the first time that the regime is "ready for a dialogue with anyone who's willing, even with those who carry arms". At a time when an influx of light weapons has helped the rebels step up combat operations, Mr Al Moallem's words hint at growing desperation in official Damascus.

No wonder Syria's fissured, fractious National Coalition has reversed its decision to boycott the talks in Rome. This is no time for Syrians to be on the sidelines as foreigners debate the country's future.

And the deadline for decisions is drawing near. With the well-being of 21 million Syrians on the line, the stakes are very high. The US, the West and the region cannot allow Syria to sink into anarchy or worse. But months of tumult and violence have created the danger that after the Assads go, the most ruthless and best-armed of the fighting factions could seize control and build their own regime.

Accordingly the time has come for those who really care for the Syrian people to do whatever it takes to save their friends from further pain. By providing support for moderate fighting units and local leaders who have roots among ordinary Syrians, Mr Kerry and his country and its allies can still accomplish something truly worthwhile: they can make sure that when the Assads finally go, power will flow to those motivated by the welfare of the whole population, and not to ideologues, sectarians, foreign stooges, or mere thugs.