Meeting Gives Nod, but Not Arms, to Syria´s Opposition (WSJ) WALL STREET JOURNAL) By NOUR MALAS TUNIS, TUNISIA 02/25/12)
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TUNIS—Western and Arab nations recognized Syria´s main opposition
group but didn´t agree to arm them, in a one-day summit that failed
to bridge deep international divisions over how to stem Syria´s
Capping hours of deliberations in the Tunisian capital, more than 60
governments backed an Arab League plan that asks President Bashar al-
Assad to cede power. They also forged a plan for international aid
agencies to set up "humanitarian operational hubs" in countries
neighboring Syria to help deliver emergency aid.
The meeting, the first of a coalition dubbed Friends of Syria, was
called after China and Russia vetoed a U.S. and Arab-backed United
Nations Security Council resolution calling on Mr. Assad to step
aside. Moscow and Beijing both declined invitations to attend the
event in Tunis.
Even among countries that have called for Mr. Assad´s exit, divisions
were deep. Saudi Arabia advocated arming the rebels, according to
news reports, and said Mr. Assad had to be forced from power if
"There is no way out of crisis except for a transfer of power, either
willingly or by force," Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said,
before leaving the meeting. He called the group´s consensus on the
need to provide humanitarian aid limited and inadequate "in the face
of a ruthless military machine."
That appeared to raise the pressure on Western nations to drop their
public rejection of military intervention in Syria or military aid to
The meeting recognized the opposition Syrian National Council "as a
legitimate representative of Syrians seeking peaceful democratic
change," singling out the group as a main vehicle for the Syrian
opposition, nearly a year after protesters first took to the streets
U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague said the U.K. recognized the
SNC "as a legitimate representative of the Syrian people," falling
short of the opposition group´s demand to be considered an alternate
The SNC—which said Friday for the first time it has already started
to receive nonlethal military aid from unspecified international
parties to help support the dissident Free Syrian Army—called the
meeting a disappointment.
Inside Syria, activists blasted what they called the meeting´s
inaction. The Local Coordination Committees, an activist network,
said 97 people were killed across Syria "while the Friends of Syria
conference [was] being held."
The Syrian opposition left with several requests unfulfilled,
including for safe zones inside Syria along border areas, a financial
support fund for the opposition and support for the Free Syrian Army,
an umbrella for defected soldiers and local fighters.
Western officials at the meeting focused on pursuing diplomatic and
economic pressure to strangle the Assad regime.
"We want a political solution," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
said after the meeting, adding that the U.S. would provide $10
million for urgent humanitarian aid. "We know that´s best for the
Syrian people. I don´t think anyone wants to see a bloody protracted
Members of the Syrian opposition, however, said the issue of arms was
on the table in most of their discussions at the meeting, including
with Western officials, who asked for a clearer idea of the state of
the armed opposition. The opposition leaders also said they were
hopeful that steps taken to partially recognize the SNC would open
the door for funds and eventually arms to flow to the opposition.
Earlier on Friday, SNC spokeswoman Bassma Kodmani said the provision
of arms "is now a consensus" among the Friends of Syria group and
said communications and defensive equipment, including bullet-proof
jackets and knight-vision goggles, had already reached opposition
forces inside Syria.
The comments prompted Western officials to deny that they had
discussed or begun to provide that kind of aid.
"There is not a single government—certainly not a single Western
government—that is considering providing weapons," a Western official
Instead, U.S. and European officials here said the focus of Friday´s
meeting was finding ways to provide humanitarian aid, and boosting
diplomatic pressure on the Syrian regime. One official called it "an
intensification of what the international community is trying to do
Many said there was resolve among Western governments to continue to
press for a negotiated political solution—led by Arab states and,
ideally, facilitated by Russia—as the last major government with
significant influence over President Assad.
Russian officials, while calling on all sides to end the violence,
have firmly rejected putting pressure on its longtime ally and major
There is no reason for Mr. Assad to step down, said Alexei Pushkov, a
legislator from the ruling United Russia party and chairman of the
International Affairs Committee in the lower house of parliament, who
met with Mr. Assad in Damascus earlier in the week.
"If you go to Damascus, you won´t get the feeling the city is on the
verge of civil war," Mr. Pushkov told reporters in Moscow on Friday,
denouncing Western media reports as biased. "I met with Assad and we
talked about this situation. I didn´t get the impression that this is
a person who´s ready to step down, in part because there´s no reason
for this. He´s supported by broad swaths of the population."
On Friday, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin continued Russia´s tough
line against what he called international calls for regime change.
But he said Russia must take care not to isolate itself. "We have our
own interests and we need to work quickly, to understand what´s
happening in the world and never wind up alone," he said.
Russia´s hard line with Syria could be related to an effort by Mr.
Putin to appear to be standing up to the West ahead of the March 4
presidential elections, where his tough international stands have
been an important campaign plank, some analysts and diplomats have
said. These observers suggest Moscow´s position could soften after
vote, with the Kremlin seeking a way to ease Mr. Assad out of office.
So far, Russian officials deny any such suggestions, however.
In Tunis, there was broad recognition among officials on the need to
address a growing insurgency on the ground, but the group´s final
statement made no reference to Syria´s armed opposition. That
reflected, officials said, a focus on a political solution for Syria
despite Arab objections.
The wrangling over the way forward on Syria was reflected in that
final statement, in which the group committed to "a political
solution to this crisis"—changed from wording in an earlier draft
of "a peaceful, non-military solution."
"All of these powers realize the Syrian conflict is more complicated
than they thought and the options are more limited," said Ayham
Kamel, a Middle East analyst with political risk firm Eurasia Group.
The group said it would meet again after the Arab League convenes a
meeting of Syria´s opposition around the Syrian National Council.
—Gregory L. White in Moscow contributed to this article. (Copyright ©
Dow Jones & Company, Inc.) 02/25/12)
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