No accord on arming Syrian rebels at Friends of Syria meeting

McClatchy NewspapersApril 1, 2012 

ISTANBUL, Turkey — The United States and more than 70 other countries Sunday announced modest new steps to counter Syria's brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protesters, but they seemed unlikely to advance the U.S. goal of removing President Bashar al Assad from power anytime soon.

Speaking at the end of a day of meetings with her counterparts in the "Friends of the Syrian People" group of nations, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced there would be another $12 million in humanitarian aid, provision of better communications equipment to the Syrian opposition, new sanctions on top Syrian leaders and training in spotting war crimes. She called them "concrete steps" that will put "greater pressure" on the Assad regime.

But her promises won faint praise from members of Syria's emigre civilian opposition. "She is the only person who said nothing new," said Mohamed Saini, an official of the Syrian National Council who sat in on the ministerial meeting. "We have more than 12,000 people killed in Syria. Most of the cities have been destroyed. I don't say we won't accept when someone says 'We are going to do something.' What we want them to say is 'We are doing it.' "

He was referring to Clinton's failure to commit the United States to demonstrative action, such as setting up safe zones, a humanitarian corridor, or a buffer zone, all of which the opposition says can help it topple Assad.

Clinton said the "moment of truth" had come for Assad, who last week accepted a U.N. demand for a cease-fire then continued his military's operations. But she did not say what would happen if Assad fails to comply or if U.N. envoy Kofi Annan declares the initiative had run its course.

"There is no more time for excuses or delays," she said. She indicated that the next move would depend on Annan, a former U.N. secretary general, who reports to the Security Council on Monday, and asked only that he establish a "timeline" for the negotiations.

"We will hear first hand from our secretary general tomorrow. I don't' want to prejudge it. I want to hear for myself," she said.

"There has to be a timeline," she said. "The timeline is not only for Kofi Annan's negotiations, but it's also for Assad. Eventually he has to recognize that he has lost legitimacy and he will not be able to avoid the kind of continuing efforts by the opposition to strike a blow for freedom."

The host of the meeting, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davitoglu, told reporters that the situation had not improved since Assad accepted the Annan plan, but had gotten worse. But he, too, spoke cautiously about next steps, saying that the Kofi Annan Mission "is not open-ended."

In Syria yesterday, foreign ministry spokesman Jihad al Makdissi all but proclaimed victory over the uprising. "The battle to topple the state is over," he told Syrian television, the British Broadcasting Corporation reported.

Opposition activists accuse the Assad government of killing dozens of civilians and resistance fighters in the days since Assad said he would abide by Annan's peace plan.

The assembled leaders here seemed acutely aware of the humanitarian disaster under way in Syria. Their final statement condemned the "widespread and systematic violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms," and cited a U.N. commission, which charged the government with possible "crimes against humanity."

But their only response was a U.S. plan to set up an "accountability clearing-house" to train Syrian citizens to document atrocities and abuses and to identify perpetrators.

Clinton announced that the United States would provide communications equipment and implied that the U.S. would also provide intelligence. The new equipment, she said, "will help activists organize, evade attacks by the regime and connect to the outside world."

A former Syrian officer, who defected to the rebels and spent six months inside the country, told McClatchy last week such assistance would be welcome, but that it was arriving very, very late. The 100 civilian volunteers he commanded around Idlib in northeastern Syria now communicate with each other by walkie-talkies that can be monitored by the army, Abdullah Awdeh, 27, formerly a sergeant, said.

Furthermore, he said that both Turkey and Jordan have been seizing satellite phones that rebel volunteers like him have been bringing into Syria. A Turkish official told McClatchy Sunday that he was surprised to hear the allegation.

Clinton's other major announcement, of another $12 million in humanitarian aid is also unlikely to have much impact. Assad has refused to allow international health and medical organizations to deliver supplies inside the country, or to treat or evacuate the wounded. Clinton acknowledged that "no amount of aid will be enough if the regime continues its military campaign, targets relief workers, blocks supplies, restricts freedom of movement and disrupts medical services." She endorsed the U.N.'s plea for a daily two hour cease-fire to allow aid to get in and wounded civilians to get out.

Saini was not the only Syrian to voice criticism of a reluctance by the Obama administration to engage actively in the Syrian crisis, now in its second year with no sign of an early end.

A young Syrian woman named Medea Dagastani, who just fled from Homs, told Clinton in the presence of reporters that "There is a feeling of despair. The Syrian people feel they are alone in this battle. They seem as if they are the only ones who want to change this regime. And no one else wants to change this regime."

Clinton said in response that "people have been working very hard to try to figure out ways to help those inside Syria." She said that "until recently, it was hard to know how to help" because the Syrian opposition was not sufficiently organized.

But that changed on Sunday when the Friends of the Syrian People, after months of not recognizing the SNC as any more than one of many opposition groups, declared that the SNC was "a legitimate representative" of all Syrians and the umbrella organization under which Syrian opposition groups are gathering.

Not every group is on board, but Saini estimated that 90 to 95 per cent of emigre organizations now come under the SNC umbrella.

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