International Community Mulls Next Options for Syrian Opposition

Free Syrian Army fighters train in a neighborhood of Damascus, Syria
Free Syrian Army fighters train in a neighborhood of Damascus, Syria
Dorian Jones

A meeting in Istanbul of more than 70 international delegates supporting the Syrian opposition was overshadowed by U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan's continuing efforts to resolve the Syrian crisis. But as  Annan's detente moves slowly, the so-called Friends of Syria may potentially play a larger role.

The second meeting of delegates mainly from Western nations and the Arab world in Istanbul on Sunday made few concrete decisions in support of the Syrian opposition. Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said the priority was to support Annan in his bid to resolve the crisis.

"Any dissent in the international community undermines Kofi Annan and increases the risk of the country descending into the hell of a civil war," Bildt said.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has vowed to comply with Mr. Annan's six-point peace plan which calls for talks between the opposition and the Syrian government. But as the violence continues, the international community is skeptical.

Annan told the U.N. Security Council Monday that there has been no progress on getting the Syrian government to implement a cease-fire. He said the Syrian government has agreed to an April 10 deadline to put parts of the peace plan into motion.

In the final communiqué issued at the Friends of Syria meeting Sunday, a timeline was demanded for the Syrian government's compliance.

But Syria's allies Russia and China have blocked tough action against Damascus in the U.N. Security Council. Russia on Monday chided Western and Arab nations for setting "ultimatums and artificial deadlines" at the Istanbul meeting.

Bassma Kodmani, the spokesperson for the opposition Syrian National Council, says it is time for Russia to consider a new stance.

"This is the opportunity for Russia to show that it is changing its position. I really look forward to see that happen. If that was to drag on and not happen, and we don't see there is a prospect of a credible way out, I think the Friends of Syria coalition is the ones who have to consider options for coming to the rescue of the Syrian people," Kodmani said.

While achieving consensus on Syria is difficult, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe says compromises have to be made.

"France shares the view of the Turkish government. We wish that the Syrian National Council could be recognized as the legitimate representative body of the Syrian people. All the members of the groups are not on the same line. That's why we adopted a balanced wording in the communiqué," Juppe said.

Opposition groups to the Syrian government are splintered. Delegates at the Istanbul meeting, while recognizing the Syrian National Council as the leading opposition arm, pressed for greater unity among activists. Swedish Foreign Minister Bildt was at the meeting.

"We would like them to be as unified as possible. We understand that can take some time. I have underlined the necessity of the opposition to really gain the confidence of all sectors and all of the groups in Syria. They are not quite there yet," Bildt said.

Some analysts say a lack of opposition consensus is holding back international efforts to arm the opposition. Qatar and Saudi Arabia have voiced support for such a move, but so far have refrained despite calls by the Syrian National Council for weapons.

Funds are being provided by some Arab Gulf States to pay members of the rebel Free Syrian Army who are fighting Assad's regime.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan outlined a possible timetable for a greater role of the Friends of Syria if Annan's diplomacy falters.

He said that if Mr. Annan's efforts fail and the U.N. Security Council again does not act, then this will give the Syrian people a right to self-defense and that no one in the international community can stand in their way.

Ankara has said it is considering the creation of a buffer zone in Syria to provide humanitarian relief. But Turkish diplomatic sources say Ankara would not act unilaterally.

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