By Cecile Feuillatre
By Cecile Feuillatre
PARIS, February 22, 2012 (AFP)
Arab and Western powers will gather with the Syrian opposition in Tunisia on Friday for a meeting aimed at boosting international efforts to end the increasingly bloody crisis in Syria.
The “Friends of Syria” conference will gather top diplomats from the Arab League, Europe and the United States, but will be marked by the absence of Russia, which denounced the meeting as one-sided and refused to attend.
China, which has joined Russia in vetoing UN Security Council resolutions on Syria, has also refused to commit itself to attend.
Representatives from the Syrian National Council (SNC) and other opposition groups will be at the meeting and are expected to come under pressure to work for the creation of a united group to represent opponents of the regime.
More than 6,000 people have died in nearly a year of upheaval in Syria, as President Bashar al-Assad’s hardline regime seeks to snuff out a revolt that began with peaceful protests in March 2011.
Host country Tunisia, the first nation to throw off its ruler during the Arab Spring, said the goal of the meeting was to send “a strong message” to the Syrian government to end the violence.
“There has been enough killing. There must be radical political change,” Tunisian Foreign Minister Rafik Abdessalem said ahead of the talks.
“We all agree on the need to urge the Syrian government to put an end to its suppression of demonstration. There are rights that should be secured for the people of Syria. They have a right to freedom and democracy,” he said.
Abdessalem said however that there was little appetite for a foreign military intervention in Syria, saying “we don’t want an Iraqi scenario.”
Western powers will instead be pushing at the meeting for the implementation of an Arab League peace plan and looking for ways to help the Syrian opposition organise itself.
The US State Department said the goal of the meeting was to “crystallize next steps to halt the slaughter of the Syrian people and pursue a transition to democracy in Syria.”
France’s foreign ministry said it hoped the meeting will “catalyse the goodwill of countries and international organisations that want the repression in Syria to end” and take concrete steps on delivering humanitarian aids.
In a statement ahead of the talks, the SNC urged the international community to create “safe havens” in the country and called on Russia to force the regime to allow access for humanitarian convoys.
SNC spokeswoman Bassma Kodmani said the group was demanding “international assistance to respond to facts on the ground, specifically humanitarian assistance and a safe haven inside Syria.”
“We seek immediate supply of humanitarian assistance to the most affected areas by creating safe passages for humanitarian convoys,” it said.
“Safe passages can be guaranteed by a commitment from Russia to force the regime to respect safe access for convoys,” the statement said.
SNC representative Monzer Makhous said the group was not expecting major political decisions at the meeting but hoped it would mark the start of a new international process on Syria.
“We do not have too many illusions about the possibility that important decisions will be made, but the meeting will be a political turning point,” Makhous said.
“It will have the merit of clarifying positions,” Tunisian political analyst Faycal Cherif said. “We will know who thinks what, who can do what and who will be sitting on the fence.”