The heads of more than 60 states and international institutions today called on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to halt his security forces’ violent offensive against rebel cities and allow access for humanitarian aid.
The “Friends of Syria” meeting also called on the United Nations to start planning for a post-Assad peacekeeping mission, but participants failed to reach a consensus on arming opposition groups or other forms of intervention, prompting the Saudi delegation to walk out of the conference, accusing it of “inactivity.”
“Is it justice to offer aid and leave the Syrians to the killing machine?” Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal told the Tunis conference.
Meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, he said that arming Syria’s opposition was “an excellent idea.”
“We call for a negotiated political solution to this crisis and an inclusive democratic transition to address the legitimate aspirations of Syria’s people in an environment free from violence, fear, intimidation, and extremism,” Clinton told the meeting.
The U.S. has not openly advocated covertly arming rebel groups through Arab states, but has hinted that it approves of such actions.
“It’s not something we’re not encouraging,” a senior U.S. official told National Journal this week.
The Syrian National Council, the leading exiled opposition group, called on the conference to provide arms to the Free Syrian Army.
“If the regime fails to accept the terms of the political initiative outlined by the Arab League and end violence against citizens, the Friends of Syria should not constrain individual countries from aiding the Syrian opposition by means of military advisers, training and provision of arms to defend themselves,” it said, in a seven-point list of demands presented to the meeting.
Claiming today that there “is now a consensus” on arming the rebels among the Friends of Syria, SNC spokeswoman Bassma Kodmani said that opposition activists in Syria had already received communications and defensive supplies, including bullet-proof jackets and night-vision goggles.
But Western officials were quick to deny her claims.
“There is not a single government—certainly not a single Western government—that is considering providing weapons,” one official said.
Syria’s ethnic and sectarian minorities had nothing to fear from a post-Assad government, SNC leader Burhan Ghalioun told the meeting.
“What is happening today in Syria has nothing to do with a conflict between a minority and a majority,” he told the meeting. He outlined a vision of a democratic alternative to Baathist rule, and called for a “presidential council” to form a transitional authority.
The meeting granted formal recognition to the SNC “as a legitimate representative of Syrians seeking peaceful democratic change,” while the rival opposition coalition, the largely Syrian-based National Co-ordination Committee for Democratic Change, boycotted the conference because the Friends group refuses to rule out military intervention.
But the divisions and disputes that have wracked the SNC were in evidence again when Radwan Ziadeh, a leading member of the group, argued against arming military defectors.
Syria’s state is losing its capacity to function and the economy has been crippled by sanctions, the son of a former president and a leading investor in the country said this week.
“The apparatus of the government is slowly disintegrating” and “the army is getting tired”, said Faisal al-Qudsi told the BBC.
“The salient fact of the Syrian conflict, after almost a year of ever bloodier offensives, is that the Assads cannot regain control of the country, while their opponents are too weak and fragmented to dislodge them,” notes one analyst.
The coerced social compact underpinning Syria’s security state is in tatters. The regime denied its citizens’ freedom and, in exchange, stamped tolerance on Syria’s religious mosaic, offered real if stifling stability and shared enough of the economic pie to keep the Sunni merchant and middle classes inside the status quo. But, as the economy and public finances disintegrate, there is little pie left to share.
But other Syria analysts believe the regime is well entrenched, ensuring that any transition will be a protracted and violent process
“We know the time of the regime is ending,” says Volker Perthes, head of the Berlin-based Institute for International and Security Affairs. “Most of Assad’s shelf life is over but he could still hold on for months.”
Tunisia’s president Moncef Marzouki is advocating a “Yemeni solution” to the crisis.
“Now the choice, unfortunately, is between something I call the Libyan scenario and the Yemeni scenario,” said Marzouki, in an interview with the Financial Times,
Yemen’s former President Ali Abdullah Saleh recently agreed to cede power in exchange for immunity from prosecution.
“Nobody now wants to use military force against Syria, and that means the only thing is to ratchet up political pressure and maybe get the Russians on board, given that they can still talk to Assad, so as to maybe get a situation like in Yemen,” said Perthes, author of several books on Syria and the Arab world.
Calling on the U.S. to provide more assistance to the Free Syrian Army, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s former policy planning chief, appeared to be criticizing her former superiors for their laggard response.
“The mantra of those opposed to intervention is ‘Syria is not Libya,’ ” she wrote in The New York Times. “In fact, Syria is far more strategically located than Libya, and a lengthy civil war there would be much more dangerous to our interests.”
The SNC is a “credible representative of the Syrian people,” Hillary Clinton said this week, but the group’s credibility has come under attack from within Syria and from international actors frustrated at the opposition’s factionalism and lack of a coherent strategy.
“We want to see a coming together of those groups so there is a congress, a collective moving together to get unity,” said a British diplomat. “One idea is for the opposition to set out a shared set of principles, with a strong message of inclusion to all ethnic groups in Syria. It is also important to set out support for a transition plan.”
“Time is running out for the Syrian opposition to establish its credibility and viability as an effective representative of the uprising,” said Steven Heydemann, a Middle East specialist at the United States Institute of Peace.
“They were in a constant, ongoing struggle, which delayed anything productive and any real work that should be done for the revolution,” said Rima Fleihan, an activist who crawled through barbed wire fences to Jordan from Syria last September to escape arrest. She was representing Syria’s Local Coordination Committees, an alliance of grass-roots activists, on the council until she quit in frustration this month.
“They fight more than they work,” Ms. Fleihan said. “People are asking why they have failed to achieve any international recognition, why no aid is reaching the people, why are we still being shelled?”
But SNC president Ghalioun dismisses suggestions that there is any genuine alternative opposition grouping.
“This is a manufactured problem,” he said. “Some independent people don’t want to join the S.N.C., but there is no strong opposition power outside the national council.”
There is no question whether international intervention will occur, says regional analyst Emile Nakleh, simply a matter of when it will happen.
“Many will say we should harden our hearts in the interests of realpolitik,” he writes. “Certainly, in Syria’s calculus, the west is hesitant to intervene militarily because the regime’s stability is important in the midst of the heated war rhetoric between Iran and Israel.” He begs to differ:
In the long run, however, hastening the demise of another Arab dictator can only be good for the region. Ousting Mr Assad would put an end to a rising regional cold war between Iran and Sunni Arab states. More immediately significant, the regime is doomed. Although the US, UK and western powers are not inclined to repeat the Libyan intervention of 2011, they cannot avoid being haunted by the Bosnian massacres of the mid-1990s when the west all but stood by and watched. Just how many thousands of innocent Syrian civilians will have to be killed before the west is driven morally to save the rest of the Syrian people?
If the democratic West and its allies fail to come to the aid of Syria’s opposition, more radical forces will fill the vacuum, some observers fear.
“To succeed, the opposition urgently needs to cohere around a credibly plural and multiconfessional programme that gives confidence to Syria’s minorities,” notes analyst David Gardner:
Militarily, their most viable goal is to split the army by raising a pole of resistance credible enough to attract large defections. To do that, they will probably need arms – and the west and its Turkish and Arab allies must be wondering whether it would be better for them to supply them or to leave the job to Wahhabi Saudi Arabia, or the jihadis who scent a new opportunity in Syria.