Erdogan: meet Syrian people's needs "here and now"

Reuters , Sunday 1 Apr 2012

Friends of the Syrian People conference opens in Istanbul with one objective in mind: how to support armed rebels fighting the regime and to set conditions for a new Syria

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan (Photo: AFP)

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said the "legitimate demands of the Syrian people must be met, right here, right now" as Western and Arab countries met in Istanbul on Sunday to try to agree on how to support armed rebels fighting to unseat President Bashar Al-Assad.

Erdogan was addressing a meeting of mostly foreign ministers from around 70 countries including the United States and leading European Union and Gulf powers who call themselves the "Friends of Syria."

Assad's forces pounded a pro-opposition neighbourhood of Homs city with artillery fire and mortars on Saturday, as his crackdown continued a day after the Syrian Foreign Ministry announced that the year-old revolt was over.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Syrian forces killed a young man at dawn on Sunday as they carried out raids and arrests in the town of Damir in Damascus province. It said a soldier was also wounded in the province when a military checkpoint came under attack.

It also said defectors attacked an army convoy near the village of Janoudiya in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border, killing at least four soldiers and wounding 11. In the same province, a woman was shot dead by a sniper in the town of Maarat al-Nuaman during army raids, it said.

Gulf Arab countries within the "Friends of Syria" group have pushed for more support to be given to the defector-based Free Syrian Army (FSA), which has taken up the baton of rebellion after months of violent repression of unarmed protesters.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal said on Saturday it was a "duty" to arm the rebels. But Western countries fear strident opposition from Russia and China as well as the prospect of being sucked in to a bloody and intractable conflict.

The conference was to discuss setting up a "trust fund" for the Syrian opposition. A Western diplomat with knowledge of the negotiations said the crux was whether countries would commit to such a fund without first settling the specifics of how it would be used.

Western countries want any such funds to be used for humanitarian efforts, but doubt the need for this, given that UN agencies stand ready to provide relief.

The opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) wants to support the FSA's efforts to protect civilians, and pay recruits who defect from Assad's forces. Diplomats say Gulf states are ready to funnel money through the SNC for this purpose.

The Turkish hosts are arguing the case for giving the SNC a bigger role, though some Western countries remain doubtful of the opposition umbrella group, which is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood.

The final declaration is unlikely to recognise the SNC as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, but the conference is expected to seek a clear endorsement from the ANC of Kofi Annan's peace plan, and demand that Assad order a ceasefire and open daily windows for humanitarian aid.

Assad has said he accepts the plan proposed by Annan, the United Nations-Arab League special envoy, which involves Syrian forces making the first move to pull back from towns and cities but does not call on Assad to step down.

But while the FSA said on Saturday it would cease fire if Assad pulled back heavy weaponry from population centres, Syria said it had to keep security forces there to maintain security.

Many governments suspect Assad of just buying time. Both Washington and Gulf Arab states urged Annan on Saturday to set a timeline for "next steps" if there was no ceasefire. "There will be a message of support for Annan's mission," said one senior Western diplomat attending the meeting, "but also a message to Assad: 'Don't play with us, we know you've reneged on previous agreements'."

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu before the meeting started.

Most of Turkey's Muslims are Sunni, like the majority in Syria at the forefront of the revolt. Assad and most of Syria's ruling establishment belongs to the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam.

More than 9,000 people have been killed by Assad's forces during the revolt, according to the United Nations, while Damascus says it has lost about 3,000 security force members. If Assad fails to keep his word, Annan will have to decide whether to tell the United Nations he has failed to make peace through a "Syrian-led process," diplomats said.

Annan will brief the Security Council on Monday on whether he sees any progress in implementing his six-point plan.

The next steps could include a return to the Security Council for a binding resolution, with increased pressure on Assad's allies Russia and China, which have endorsed Annan's mission, to get tough with Damascus.

Syrian state television broadcast some of the opening session of what it called "The meeting of the enemies of the Syrian people" in Istanbul. It said Erdogan "speaks about the interests of the Syrian people but ignores (Turkey's) harbouring of terrorists".

When Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim Al-Thani addressed the meeting, it said in a strapline: "Hamad speaks about a political solution in Syria, yet he is the one who, along with Al-Faisal, declares support for terrorists with arms and money to kill Syrian people."

Short link: