Meet demands 'here and now', Syria told
Istanbul, April 1, 2012
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.
They are trying 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 US and leading European Union and Gulf powers who call themselves the 'Friends of Syria'.
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'.' - Reuters