TUNIS, February 24, 2012 (AFP)
TUNIS, February 24, 2012 (AFP)
Western and Arab powers are to push Syria to allow in desperately needed humanitarian aid at an international conference Friday aimed at boosting pressure on President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
More than 60 nations are gathering in Tunisia for the crucial “Friends of Syria” conference, which will also seek to further isolate Assad’s regime and support the country’s opposition.
But the Arab League-organized conference of Arab and Western officials, including US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, will be marked by a Russian boycott and the absence of China.
Both countries have frustrated efforts to rein in Assad’s regime, including by vetoing UN Security Council resolutions.
An early draft of the meeting’s declaration being circulated by opposition sources Thursday said it could call for the Syrian government “to implement an immediate ceasefire and to allow free and unimpeded access by the UN… and humanitarian agencies.”
“We look forward to concrete progress on three fronts: providing humanitarian relief, increasing pressure on the regime, and preparing for a democratic transition,” Clinton told reporters in London on the eve of the talks.
“To that end, we hope to see new pledges of emergency assistance for Syrians caught in Assad’s stranglehold, and international coordination and diplomatic pressure on Damascus to allow it to get to those who need it most.”
A US official said on condition of anonymity that the goal was to get “concrete proposals (on the supply of aid) within days.”
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe also said a key goal was “to move forward on the question of humanitarian aid” and the creation of relief corridors.
The draft declaration demanded that humanitarian groups be allowed in to Syria to assess the need for aid and “be permitted to deliver vital relief goods and services to civilians affected by violence.”
Juppe said the meeting will aim to send a signal not just to Assad but also to the countries that have backed him.
The conference “will be a very strong symbol of the growing isolation of the regime and the isolation of those countries that continue to block all solutions at the Security Council,” he said.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said London would push for the Tunis talks to agree to “tightening a diplomatic and economic stranglehold on the Assad regime” with increased sanctions.
EU diplomats have said the 27-nation bloc is set to slap fresh sanctions on Damascus, including a ban on Syrian-run cargo flights, a freeze on the assets of Syria’s central bank and restrictions on trade in precious metals.
The draft declaration called for a toughening of sanctions including travel bans, asset freezes, ceasing oil purchases and the closure of foreign embassies in Damascus and Syrian embassies in other capitals.
It also called for the Arab League to convene a meeting of the Syrian opposition and praised the Syrian National Council (SNC), the main opposition umbrella group.
But it did not appear to give the SNC exclusive recognition, calling it only “a legitimate representative of Syrians seeking peaceful democratic change.”
SNC representatives and other opposition groups at Friday’s meeting are expected to come under pressure to work for the creation of a united group to represent opponents of the regime.
Clinton on Thursday described the SNC as a “credible representative” of the Syrian people.
“We believe that the Syrian National Council, which will be there sitting at the table, will show that there is an alternative to the Assad regime,” she said.
Juppe however said the opposition still had work to do to “get organized”.
Activists say more than 7,600 people, mostly civilians, have died since Assad’s hardline regime launched a crackdown to snuff out a revolt that began with peaceful protests in March 2011.