Saturday, February 25, 2012

Syrian Opposition Skeptical of International Commitment

Syrian expats and a member of the opposition Syrian National Council stand outside the Palace Hotel in Gammarth, Tunis, Tunisia on February, 24, 2012.

As foreign ministers from around the world gathered in Tunis on Friday to discuss possible responses to the Syrian regime’s bloody crackdown on its people, members of the main Syrian opposition group present at the so-called “Friends of the Syrian people” conference were incensed at the what they see as a weak response.

“We didn’t come here to talk about humanitarian aid, we came here to talk about the violence. Aid will not stop the killing,” said press spokesman Mouayad Alkiblawi of the opposition group the Syrian National Council, or SNC. “They never talked about self-defense. Do you need 100,000 victims to intervene?”

SNC members were also upset with what they saw as the weak opening remarks of Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki, who suggested that the international community seek a deal with the Assad regime similar to the one that was reached with Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Alkiblawi’s comments came after the Saudi delegation walked out of the conference, citing the “inactivity” of the talks.

A senior Turkish diplomat said it was understandable that the Saudis wanted stronger language in the working document that had been circulated throughout the conference but said that the meeting was important to create an international platform to pressure the Syrian regime.

“This is the voice of the international conscience,” the diplomat said, suggesting that the show of international backing for increasing pressure on President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime could create the dynamics needed to push through another United Nations Security Council resolution on the issue if the U.N. route is revisited at a later date.

Friday’s meetings came after a U.N. Security Council resolution calling on Assad to step aside was vetoed by Russia and China. Russia boycotted the Tunis meetings, while China did not send a delegation.

United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gives closing remarks at the Friends of the Syrian people conference in Tunis, Tunisia on February 24, 2012.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered harsh prepared words for the two abstaining nations on Friday, calling their position on Syria “despicable.”

“Whose side are they on? Clearly they are not on the side of the Syrian people,” she said in her closing remarks. “We call on those states that are supplying weapons to kill civilians to halt immediately.”

She said that the conference had achieved concrete steps to putting pressure on the Syrian regime, including “commitments” to impose travel bans on senior regime members, freezing regime assets, and more sanctions. She did not specify which nations made these commitments or when the commitments would be realized.

While the United States pledged $10 million in additional humanitarian aid, the issue of immediately putting a stop to the violence was not concluded.

“I regret deeply that there will be more killing before [Assad] goes,” Clinton said.

Tunisia as Host 

The organization of Friday’s conference was finalized “last minute,” according to conference participants. Security was lacking in the morning, with few police guarding the entrance to the Palace Hotel in Gammarth, the conference venue. A metal detector placed at the entrance to the hotel beeped without entrants submitting to additional screening.

Security issues came to the fore when a small but vocal group of Tunisian pro-Assad protesters stormed the hotel’s gates. The group of a couple hundred pushed forward, nearly to the entrance of the hotel, blocking off car access routes and delaying the arrival of Secretary Clinton, President Marzouki and other delegates. The protesters were finally dispersed after police beat them with batons and chased them back.

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