x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

'Friends of Syria' divided over how to oust Assad

While western powers stress the need for a political solution to Syria's crisis, some Arab states are calling for varying degrees of military intervention.

TUNIS // An international Friends of Syria conference that strongly condemned the Syrian president's violent regime was, in the end, overshadowed by a sense of impotence.

Representatives from more than 60 countries, who gathered Friday in Tunis, pledged specific actions to isolate President Bashar Al Assad, including travel bans on regime members, boycotting Syrian oil, ceasing investments, and reducing diplomatic ties. But they remained divided on how to force Mr Al Assad to step down.

While western powers stress the need for a political solution to Syria's crisis, some Arab states called for varying degrees of military intervention.

Prince Saud Al Feisal, Saudi's foreign minister, on Friday called arming Mr Al Assad's opponents "an excellent idea". He later walked out of the meeting, saying that it was not doing enough. He explained later that he left to attend bilateral meetings.

Yesterday, Syria singled out Mr Al Feisal for criticism. The riposte from Damascus, which was published in a state-run newspaper, accusing Riyadh of becoming "a partner" in the killings in Syria.

The meeting also signaled a push to build international pressure on Mr Al Assad outside of the United Nations Security Council, where he is protected by veto-wielding members Russia and China.

Chinese state media reacted quickly to comments by Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, who portrayed the two countries - that recently blocked action against Mr Al Assad at the Security Council - as complicit in assaults by the country's security forces.

China, in response, accused the US and Europe of "harbouring hegemonistic ambitions" in Syria. A commentary yesterday in Beijing's official Xinhua news agency said that "most of the Arab countries have begun to realise that the US and Europe are hiding a dagger behind a smile".

"In other words, while they appear to be acting out of humanitarian concern, they are actually harbouring hegemonistic ambitions," it said.

The accusations were made against a backdrop of mounting violence in Syria, as Mr Al Assad stepped up attacks against a nearly year-old uprising that has, by some estimates, seen more than 7,600 people killed.

At least 26 people were killed across Syria yesterday, with some Homs residents frustrated by what they considered a lack of progress from the meeting.

"I don't really care about the Tunis conference. All I care about is getting help for my family in the besieged areas," Homs resident, Waleed Fares, said.

On Friday, the UN and Arab League appointed Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary general, as their joint envoy on Syria.

In a statement, Mr Annan said he would try to "help bring an end to the violence and human rights abuses, and promote a peaceful solution''.

It's unclear how Syria will react to the latest entreaties.

"The US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Arab League have all tried to get Assad to engage in reforms and haven't succeeded," said David Mack, a scholar at the Middle East Institute, in Washington, and former US ambassador to several Arab countries. "There's a high level of frustration."

Some members of the Syrian National Council (SNC), Syria's main opposition group, also called for tougher action against Mr Al Assad.

"We would have hoped that we could bring down the regime through completely peaceful means but the regime practised violence and only understands the language of force," said the SNC official, Bassam Ishaak.

Another SNC source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that anti-Assad insurgents were already smuggling weapons into Syria.

"It is coming from everywhere, including western countries and it is not difficult to get anything through the borders."

The Qatari foreign minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani, called for an Arab peacekeeping force to open humanitarian corridors in Syria.

Friday's meeting officially backed an Arab League plan for Mr Al Assad to hand power to a deputy, ahead of elections.

"I am convinced that Assad's days are numbered," Mrs Clinton said. "I just regret deeply that there will be more killing before he finally goes."