By Bradley Klapper and Christopher Torchia/ Associated Press
ISTANBUL: Dozens of countries on Sunday sought to set conditions for a new Syria, pushing for tighter sanctions and diplomatic pressure to further isolate President Bashar Assad, while urging the opposition to offer a democratic alternative to his regime.
Yet the show of solidarity at the “Friends of the Syrian People” conference in Turkey’s largest city, Istanbul, was marred by the absence of China, Russia and Iran — key supporters of Assad who disagree with Western and Arab allies over how to stop the bloodshed. A peace plan by UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan has so far failed to take hold amid fresh reports of deadly violence.
“The Syrian regime should not be allowed at any cost to manipulate this plan to gain time,” Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in an opening address. “This regime has never kept its promises.”
Erdogan also indicated military options might have to be considered if the international community fails to unite in opposition to Assad. He referred to the vetoes of UN censure of Assad by Russia and China, who fear the measures could lead to foreign military intervention.
“If the UN Security Council fails once again to bring about its historic responsibility, there will be no other choice than to support the Syrian people’s right to self-defense,” Erdogan said.
Burhan Ghalioun, leader of the opposition Syrian National Council, called for the strengthening of Syrian rebel forces as well as “security corridors” inside Syria, an apparent reference to the foreign military intervention that the nations meeting in Istanbul have so far been reluctant to support.
He also expressed skepticism that the Syrian regime would observe Annan’s plan.
“No one should allow this regime to feel at ease or to feel stronger by giving them a longer maneuvering area,” he said.
“It’s enough that the international community has flirted with the regime in Syria. Something has to change.”
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was among those attending the one-day meeting, which followed an inaugural forum in Tunisia in February. Syrian opposition figures, including the Syrian National Council, also attended, attempting to convince international sponsors that they can overcome their differences and shape the future of a country whose autocratic regime has long denied the free exchange of ideas.
Syria blasted the conference calling it part of an international conspiracy to kill Syrians and weaken the country.
A front-page editorial in the official Al-Baath newspaper called it a “regional and international scramble to search for ways to kill more Syrians, sabotage their society and state and move toward the broad objective of weakening Syria.”
About 40 Assad supporters gathered near the conference building to denounce the meeting, holding portraits of the Syrian leader. One man waved Chinese and Russian flags.
The delivery of humanitarian aid to Syria’s beleaguered civilians, a key provision of Annan’s plan, was also discussed Sunday. But a solution did not appear imminent without the cooperation of the Syrian government, whose military assaults on towns and cities have forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes. Syrian rebels, including army defectors, are fighting regime forces, but have been unable to consolidate their hold on territory because they are heavily outgunned.
Tens of thousands of Syrian refugees have fled to neighboring Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, and Turkey has floated the idea of establishing a buffer zone inside Syria if the flow of displaced people onto its territory becomes overwhelming. There are concerns that foreign intervention, even if it has a humanitarian goal, could widen the conflict by dragging in other countries and triggering a surge in sectarian tensions.
Some Gulf countries want to arm the Syrian rebels, though there is uncertainty about the composition of rebel groups and their lack of cohesion. The United States says allies are considering the provision of non-lethal aid to opposition forces, but says military force against the Syrian government is a last resort.
The group meeting in Istanbul aims to create a sanctions working group that will share information on who is shipping arms and money to Assad, thereby avoiding harsh sanctions aimed at forcing his regime to stop its crackdown. The United Nations estimates more than 9,000 people have been killed since the uprising to oust Assad began a year ago.
There is also a move to document the killing in Syria, collecting witness records that can be used to bring perpetrators of human rights abuses to account in a post-Assad era, whether inside Syria or through international courts.