Once Again, Damascus Thumbs Its Nose at the 'Friends of Syria'

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Bulent Kilic / AFP / Getty Images

Police push away supporters of Syrian President Bashar Assad outside the Istanbul Congress Center, where the "Friends of the Syrian People" met on April 1, 2012

Even before the 83 nations representing the Friends of the Syrian People gathered in Istanbul on Sunday, Damascus declared the "battle to bring down the state" a failure. The words were pointed directly at the coalition of the regime's opponents, which was meeting for the second time in five weeks in an attempt to propel the fractured Syrian opposition forward in its yearlong struggle against the Assad dynasty.

With the Syrian military laying waste to the pockets of armed resistance within its territory, Damascus haughtily allowed that it would be willing to cooperate with a U.N.-sponsored peace deal that demands that it withdraw its troops from Syria's cities — but on its own terms and schedule. The army would remain in place "for defensive purposes to protect the civilians, of whom large numbers are taken as hostages to strike against the stability of the country," Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Maqdisi was quoted as saying in an interview with state TV late Friday. "Once peace and security prevail, the army is to pull out," he said.

It was just the kind of talk to rile the Foreign Ministers and senior dignitaries gathered for the Friends of the Syrian People conference. They said they would no longer tolerate such doublespeak from the regime. The Friends endorsed a six-point plan proposed by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, acting on behest of the world organization and the Arab League, which calls not only for a withdrawal of heavy weapons and troops from Syria's besieged cities but also for an immediate cease-fire and action toward a political transition. It did not, however, include something that conference participants had urged Annan to establish: a timetable. Damascus therefore set up its own — infuriating the Friends, who do not appear to have come up with specific means of retaliating.

In Istanbul for the meeting, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton fired back at Syrian President Bashar Assad, saying that "the time for excuses is over." The international community, she added, "cannot sit back and wait any longer." The conference's final statement declared that "against the background of numerous previous failures to fulfill its promises ... the regime will be judged by its deeds rather than its promises." It warned that Assad's window of opportunity to do so "is not open-ended."

The host country did not mince words either. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in an opening speech that he supported "the right of the Syrian people to defend themselves" if Annan's plan failed. He also lambasted a U.N. Security Council he said had "consistently failed" to stop the Syrian regime. "We need to have our conscience speak, our humanitarian concerns, nothing else," Erdogan said, calling for "moral intervention."

Syrian state media were not trembling. They dubbed the conference a gathering of the "enemies of Syria," and, although state TV broadcast some of the speeches live, one anchor reportedly said that it was apt the conference was held on "April 1, because it is April Fools' Day." "Only the naive and those who want to see through the eyes of the Americans believe that this is a conference for the friends of the Syrian people," the Al-Baath newspaper said in a front-page editorial Sunday. The gathering was 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."

What can the Friends do apart from talk about punishing Syria? In a brief address, Arab League Secretary General Nabil el-Araby mentioned enforcing a cease-fire through Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter. The clause empowers the Security Council to "determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression" and to take military and nonmilitary action to "restore international peace and security." It was a marked change of tone for the secretary general, who has generally been the counterweight to more aggressive Saudi and Qatari calls for arming the opposition and an Arab peacekeeping force, respectively. However, the idea didn't seem to gain any traction throughout the day and remains a contentious notion.

The Friend's final communiqué urged members of the regime's armed forces to disobey "unlawful orders targeting the Syrian people." It did not, however, mention the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA), although Persian Gulf states are creating a multimillion-dollar fund to pay salaries to FSA members as well as to Syrian soldiers who defect, according to opposition leader Burhan Ghalioun. The fund, if it materializes, will likely be an indirect way of arming the Syrian rebels by providing them with the means to purchase supplies, without openly arming them.

In the meantime, the U.S. announced it will double its humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people, pledging an additional $12.2 million in medical supplies and other assistance as well as "communications equipment" to "help activists organize, evade attacks by the regime and connect to the outside world." But even the offer of humanitarian aid raised questions. "How will they transport this relief they're talking about? What's the mechanism?" asked Suheir Atassi, a leading figure from the internal Syrian opposition who recently fled to France and was attending her first conference in exile. "They said this is Bashar's last chance," she said. "That means they're still giving the regime chances, they are still giving it legitimacy, whereas we consider him a criminal who should be tried." "We have heard statements but didn't see very strong actions," SNC member Adib Shishakly said. "After one year and one month, we need action."