Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said the “legitimate demands of the Syrian people must be met, right here, right now” and in what appeared to be a reference to a possible military action, stated that it would be imperative for the international community to defend Syrian people's “right to self-defense” if the UN Security Council does not step in to stop bloodshed.
Erdoğan was addressing a meeting of mostly foreign ministers from around ۸۰ countries including the United States and leading European Union and Gulf powers who call themselves the “Friends of the Syrian People,” which convened in İstanbul on Sunday to try to agree on how to support armed opposition fighting to unseat President Bashar al-Assad.
In criticism that appeared to target Russia and China, which have blocked efforts at the UN to issue a resolution calling for Assad to leave power, Erdoğan said: “A Security Council that has failed to say enough to a regime that has massacred innocent civilians, shelled cities and resorted to brutal violence is clearly incapable of preserving international peace and security.”
Kofi Annan, the UN-Arab League envoy for Syria, has offered a six-point peace plan that calls for a cease-fire, the withdrawal of heavy weapons and troops from population centers, humanitarian assistance, release of prisoners and free movement and access for journalists, but does not call on Assad to step down.
“I need to state that if the Syrian regime does not cooperate [with Annan's peace plan], it will be an inevitable requirement for the UN Security Council to fulfill its responsibility and put an end to the massacre in Syria,” Erdoğan said. “If the UN Security Council avoids this historic responsibility once again, the international community will be left with no choice but support the Syrian people's right to self-defense.”
Although more than ۹,۰۰۰ people have been killed in Syria since protests against Assad regime began a year ago, the international community remains divided on what to do to stop the bloodshed. The West, joined by Turkey and some Arab countries, says Assad must leave power while UN Security Council members Russia and China as well as Syria's regional ally Iran support him.
The Turkish prime minister urged the participating nations to speak with one voice and send a clear message to Syria that no plan that paves the way for Assad to stay in power will be supported. He also called for elections under international supervision.
Assad accepted Annan's plan and promised to “spare no effort” to make sure it succeeds. But he demanded that armed forces battling his regime commit to halting violence as well.
The Turkish prime minister said Turkey hoped Annan's plan would yield results but was doubtful that it will, saying the Syrian regime is likely to use it just to gain more time.
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton also expressed skepticism that the Syrian government would observe Annan's plans, which calls for an immediate cease-fire and a Syrian-led negotiation process.
“Nearly a week has gone by, and we have to conclude that the regime is adding to its long list of broken promises,” Clinton said at the conference. “The world must judge Assad by what he does, not by what he says. And we cannot sit back and wait any longer.”
Turkish officials earlier dismissed suggestions of contradiction between the Friends of the Syrian People initiative and Annan's plan. Addressing the İstanbul gathering, Erdoğan said Annan's mission should be “made compatible” with efforts at the Friends of the Syrian People meeting, apparently criticizing its failure to call for Assad's departure. “Any initiative that put the oppressed and the oppressor in the same category will only prolong violence,” he said.
In an effort to present a united opposition to participants of the Friends of the Syrian People, Turkey hosted last week a major gathering of the Syrian opposition groups, which produced a “national covenant” that outlines the Syrian opposition's vision of a future democratic Syria. It was hoped that the international meeting would lead to recognition of the main opposition group, the Syrian National Council, as “the only” legitimate representative of the Syrian people but this may not be achieved during the İstanbul gathering.
The Turkish hosts are arguing the case for giving the Syrian National Council a bigger role, though some Western countries remain doubtful of the opposition umbrella group, which is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. Erdoğan said Turkey “wholeheartedly believes in the Syrian National Council's determinism and capability to build a democratic Syria.”
Gulf Arab countries within the Friends of Syrian People group have pushed for more support to be given to the defector-based Free Syrian Army (FSA), which has taken up the baton of rebellion after months of violent repression of unarmed protesters. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said on Saturday it was a “duty” to arm the rebels. But Western countries fear strident opposition from Russia and China as well as the prospect of being sucked in to a bloody and intractable conflict.
The İstanbul conference was to discuss setting up a “trust fund” for the Syrian opposition. A Western diplomat with knowledge of the negotiations said the crux was whether countries would commit to such a fund without first settling the specifics of how it would be used. Western countries want any such funds to be used for humanitarian efforts, but doubt the need for this, given that UN agencies stand ready to provide relief.
The Syrian National Council wants to support the FSA's efforts to protect civilians, and pay recruits who defect from Assad's forces. Diplomats say Gulf States are ready to funnel money through the SNC for this purpose.
Clinton urged unity behind a plan that includes more sanctions, humanitarian aid, support for the opposition and the promise of justice one day for regime figures involved in atrocities. She said the US is providing communications equipment to help opposition members in Syria organize, remain in contact with the outside world and evade regime attacks.
Burhan Ghalioun, leader of the opposition Syrian National Council, called for the strengthening of Syrian rebel forces as well as “security corridors” inside Syria, a reference to internationally protected zones on Syrian territory that would allow the delivery of aid to civilians. However, the nations meeting in İstanbul have so far failed to agree on such an intervention, which could involve the risky deployment of foreign security forces.
“No one should allow this regime to feel at ease or to feel stronger by giving them a longer maneuvering area,” he said, reflecting fears that Assad would try to use the Annan plan to prolong his tenure. “It's enough that the international community has flirted with the regime in Syria. Something has to change.”
In a statement, the Syrian National Council said weapons supplies to the opposition were not “our preferred option” because of the risk they could escalate the killing of civilians, but it appealed for technical equipment to help rebels coordinate. “For these supplies to be sent, neighboring countries need to allow for the transfer via their sea ports and across borders,” the council said.
The one-day meeting followed an inaugural forum in Tunisia in February. Since then, Syrian opposition figures have tried to convince international sponsors that they can overcome their differences and shape the future of a country whose autocratic regime has long denied the free exchange of ideas.
Syria blasted the conference, calling it part of an international conspiracy to kill Syrians and weaken the country. A front-page editorial in the official Al-Baath newspaper called it a “regional and international scramble to search for ways to kill more Syrians, sabotage their society and state, and move toward the broad objective of weakening Syria.”
In İstanbul, police used tear gas and batons to disperse a group of about ۴۰ Assad supporters who tried to approach the conference building. Many held portraits of the Syrian leader. One man waved Chinese and Russian flags.
The delivery of humanitarian aid to Syria's beleaguered civilians is a key provision of Annan's plan. Clinton announced $۱۲ million in additional aid for Syria's people -- doubling the total American assistance so far. Germany, whose foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, attended the İstanbul meeting, said it was nearly doubling its humanitarian contributions to ۵.۷ million euros ($۷.۶ million).
But a comprehensive solution did not appear imminent without the cooperation of the Syrian government, whose military assaults on towns and cities have forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes. Syrian rebels, including army defectors, are fighting regime forces, but have been unable to consolidate their hold on territory because they are heavily outgunned.