Syria's "friends" try to twist screw on Assad
Istanbul: Western and Arab nations sought to exert more pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Sunday, mistrusting his acceptance of a plan to end a year of bloodshed, but were not expected to arm rebels or fully recognize an opposition council.
Opening a "Friends of Syria" conference in Istanbul, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan told foreign ministers and other officials from some 70 countries that the "legitimate demands of the Syrian people must be met, right here, right now".
In her prepared remarks, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged members of Assad's government to halt operations targeting civilians, or face "serious consequences".
She said the United States was providing communications gear among other aid to Syria's civilian opposition, and denounced Assad for failing to follow through on his agreement to a peace plan proposed by UN-Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan.
"Nearly a week has gone by, and we have to conclude that the regime is adding to its long list of broken promises," she said.
The United States and its Gulf Arab allies, suspecting Assad of playing for time, urged Annan on Saturday to set a timeline for "next steps" if there was no ceasefire.
Violence has raged unabated despite Annan's mediation. Opposition activists reported at least 16 people killed on Sunday, mostly in clashes in northwestern and eastern Syria.
Syrian media derided the Istanbul meeting, which the Baath newspaper described as "a regional and international scramble to find ways of killing more Syrians and destroying their society and country, to reach the broad goal of weakening Syria".
Around 50 Assad supporters protested outside the conference centre, waving Syria, Russian and Chinese flags and brandishing pictures of the Syrian leader. "Allah, Syria, Bashar, that's it" and "Down, down USA" they chanted, before police removed them.
Mahmoud Abdulatif, a Syrian lawyer who joined dozens in a similar protest outside a conference hotel used by delegates, accused Gulf Arab leaders and others of meddling in Syria.
"There can be no foreign involvement in Syria," he said.
Annan will brief the UN Security Council on Monday on his efforts to calm a conflict in which Syrian security forces have killed more than 9,000 people, by a UN estimate, while rebels have killed 3,000 troops and police, according to Damascus.
His six-point plan demands that Assad order his military to cease fire, withdraw troops from cities and open daily windows for humanitarian aid, but does not require him to step down.
The rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) said on Saturday it would stop shooting if Assad pulled heavy weaponry out of urban areas, but Damascus said its forces must stay to maintain security.
Gulf Arab countries within the "Friends of Syria" group have pushed for more support to be given to the FSA, formed to fight back 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, which did not attend the Istanbul meeting, as well as the prospect of being sucked into an intractable conflict.
They have slapped sanctions on Syria, but these have failed so far to soften the government's crackdown on its opponents.
Wary of military intervention and unsure of the credibility of the fractious opposition Syrian National Council (SNC), Western powers have yet to discover how to unseat Assad.
SNC leader Burhan Ghalioun pressed the "Friends of Syria" to strengthen the rebel army and open humanitarian corridors for civilians bearing the brunt of Assad's crackdown.
"Our people are in serious need of humanitarian aid. We are asking for safe corridors. We want the Free Syrian Army to be strengthened," SNC president Burhan Ghalioun told the meeting.
In a separate statement, the SNC requested communications equipment for the FSA and possibly weapons.
"The provision of arms is not our preferred option. We know it carries high risks of escalation into civil war but we cannot stand back and watch our people being massacred," it said.
At a reconciliation meeting in Istanbul last week, the SNC agreed to become more transparent and inclusive. Critics say the Muslim Brotherhood wields undue influence over the body, even though it is led by Ghalioun, a secular Paris-based academic.
"We are stepping up our support for the opposition in Syria and they are better coordinated now than they were even a few weeks ago," British Foreign Secretary William Hague told the BBC.
His French counterpart, Alain Juppe, said France and Turkey both wanted the SNC recognized as "the legitimate representative body of the Syrian people", but acknowledged an absence of consensus on this. "All the members of the group of Friends of Syria are not on the same line," Juppe said.
The "Friends" were to discuss setting up a "trust fund" for the opposition, though a Western diplomat said it was not clear if nations would contribute without clarity on its purpose.
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 SNC 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 fund such efforts.
If Annan's effort fails, the next steps could include a return to the Security Council for a binding resolution, with increased pressure on Assad's allies Russia and China, which have endorsed Annan's mission, to get tough with Damascus.
In Syria, five rebels, four soldiers and a civilian were killed in fierce clashes in the town of Quriya in Deir al-Zor, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Defectors also attacked an army convoy near the village of Janoudiya in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border, killing at least four soldiers and wounding 11, it said. Two other civilians were killed in Idlib and Damascus provinces.
The British-based Observatory said 53 people, including 10 soldiers, were killed across Syria on Saturday. The state news agency SANA said military funerals took place the same day for 20 soldiers and security men killed by "armed terrorist groups".