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February 20, 2012

Multilateral Group Meets Friday to Help Assad Opponents

by Scott Stearns

Foreign ministers from countries opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad plan to gather in Tunisia Friday to help organize greater international support for the uprising against him. This will be the first meeting of a group known as the "Friends of Syria."

With the city of Homs under shelling for a third week, international pressure has failed to stop the Syrian military assault on the opposition.

Foreign ministers meeting in Mexico this week say Russia and China are partly to blame because they are blocking meaningful action to end the violence.

"On Syria, there is great concern about the fact that the existing structures of the United Nations have not delivered an outcome mainly, that we have a Security Council resolution, albeit a moderate and mild one, which is still vetoed by two member states, two permanent member states of the Security Council," said Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says there are a range of options under consideration.

"We will strengthen our targeted sanctions, bring the international community together in condemnation of the actions of the Assad regime. We will increase our outreach to opposition both inside and outside of Syria," said Clinton said.

The meeting will refocus attention on the opposition to President Assad, which is divided. Arab leaders hope a unified opposition will emerge as a Syrian government-in-waiting, said Tunisian Prime Minister Hammadi Jebali.

"We seek to recognize a body which represents all the Syrian rebels and the opposition. If that is not possible, we will look for the group that is most representative."

The "Friends of Syria" meeting shows the Arab League and its allies will not allow themselves to be blocked by Russia and China, said Middle East analyst Steve Heydemann.

"What they have put in place is a framework for a coordinated, multilateral effort to reach out to the Syrian opposition to help build the capacity of the opposition and potentially to help provide support and equipment and training to the armed elements of the Syrian opposition, including the Free Syrian Army," said Heydemann.

According to the Chinese government, President Assad's supporters are trying to prevent a military escalation.

"We support plans to stop violence, protect Syrian civilians, provide humanitarian aid and prevent foreign interference. We hope the Syria issue can be resolved through political and peaceful talks with the Arab League," said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei.

China and Russia join President Assad in calls for a constitutional referendum as part of reforms proposed by the Arab League. The United States says it is going to the Friends of Syria meeting, in part, because China and Russia blocked those Arab League reforms at the United Nations.