TUNIS: Western powers vowed Thursday to boost pressure on the Syrian regime and push it to allow in vital humanitarian aid at a global conference on Friday to tackle the country’s increasingly bloody crisis.
As the flashpoint city of Homs came under renewed shelling, officials said Friday’s “Friends of Syria” meeting of over 60 nations in Tunisia will also seek to support the Syrian opposition in its efforts to build a unified front.
France said the meeting will cement Syria’s “growing isolation,” while Britain said it will push for a tightening of the “stranglehold” on the regime and a US official said it will demand that Damascus allow in humanitarian aid.
But the Arab League-organized conference of senior Arab and Western diplomats, including US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, will be marked by a Russian boycott and the absence of China.
Both countries have frustrated Western and Arab efforts to rein in President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, including by vetoing UN Security Council resolutions on the crisis.
Russia said Thursday that Beijing and Moscow remained opposed to foreign intervention in Syria, while China’s influential People’s Daily warned this week that Western support for Syrian rebels could risk “large-scale civil war”.
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.
Syrian forces launched another massive bombardment of rebel districts in Homs on Thursday, pounding the city for the 20th straight day, activists said.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said Friday’s talks will aim to “increase pressure on the regime” and send a clear signal not just to Assad but also to the countries that have backed him.
The meeting “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 told London-based pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat.
A US official said Clinton discussed a “unified humanitarian proposal” with counterparts on the sidelines of an international conference on Somalia in London on Thursday.
“The challenge is on the Syrian regime to respond to this,” the official said on condition of anonymity.
“I think one of the things you are going to see coming out of the meeting tomorrow are concrete proposals [on the supply of aid] within days.”
The International Committee of the Red Cross has called for a daily truce of two hours in Syria so it can deliver vital aid to afflicted areas.
International organizations were meeting in Geneva on Thursday to discuss coordinating efforts to get humanitarian aid to Syria.
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”.
“People have been dying in their thousands, that continues, the Assad regime continues to act seemingly with impunity,” he told the BBC.
“But I think we can agree a wider set of measures across a large group of nations, I think we can tighten the European Union sanctions on Syria when we meet on Monday.”
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 Syrian National Council (SNC), the main opposition umbrella group, on Wednesday urged the international community to agree to create safe havens for the delivery of aid.
It also warned that military intervention might be the “only option” to end the crackdown, but Western and Arab nations have so far rejected the idea of a foreign mission similar to the operation that helped topple the Libyan regime.
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.
“It is fundamental that they get organized, that they group together,” Juppe said.
“We are in a situation where there is one opposition inside [the country], one opposition outside and military structures that are, in all honesty, not very organized.”