‘Friends of Syria’ insist Assad stands down; Russia denies backing regime


A meeting of over 100 countries on the Syria crisis called in its final statement for President Bashar al-Assad to stand down as part of a transition in the crisis-torn nation.

“Participants agreed and clearly affirmed that those whose presence would compromise the transition's credibility should be distanced. In this respect, they stressed that Bashar al-Assad should leave power,” it said.

Foreign ministers and senior diplomats from the “Friends of Syria” group agreed after a morning of talks in Paris to “massively increase” aid to Syrian rebels and to provide them with communications equipment.

Urging U.N. Security Council action

They urged stronger U.N. Security Council action on the crisis on Friday and called for “broader and tougher” sanctions.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged world powers to show Russia and China would pay a price for impeding progress toward a democratic transition in Syria.

“It is frankly not enough just to come to the Friends of the Syrian People (meeting) because I will tell you very frankly, I don’t think Russia and China believe they are paying any price at all - nothing at all - for standing up on behalf of the Assad regime,” Clinton told the “Friends of Syria” meeting.

“The only way that will change is if every nation represented here directly and urgently makes it clear that Russia and China will pay a price because they are holding up progress - blockading it - (and) that is no longer tolerable.”

At the meeting, French President Francois Hollande called for stiffer sanctions against Syria’s Assad and more support for rebels seeking to drive him from power at the start of a meeting of Western and Arab states who back the uprising.

“Bashar al-Assad must go,” Hollande told a meeting of foreign ministers and senior diplomats from the “Friends of Syria” group. “It’s in the interest of Syria, of its neighbors and everybody who wants peace in the region.”

“The Syrian regime believes violence is the solution … It is essential that Assad leaves power and an oppositional body be installed.”

Hollande said he wanted the participants at the talks - who were cheered by reports of the defection of a senior Syrian general - to also agree to step up humanitarian aid to the country.

Chapter 7 of the U.N. charter

Meanwhile, Abdulbaset Seyda, the head of the Syrian National Council said his group has asked for the implementation of Annan’s plan under Chapter 7 of the U.N. charter, which allows for sanctions ranging from economic measures to an arms embargo, and if necessary military force.

Chapter 7 was last used against Libya last year. But it could be highly controversial at the U.N. Security Council, given Russia and China’s veto powers.

Seyda also called for humanitarian corridors and a no-fly zone as over 100 nations met in Paris to discuss an end to the 16-month bloody crisis.

"All steps have to be taken to establish a humanitarian corridor and a no-fly zone," Abdel Basset Sayda said, claiming that the regime of President Bashar al-Assad "is about to fall."

Seyda also thanked Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE for supporting the bloc during the crisis in Syria.

“Assad‘s regime will fall and defections in the army are increasing,” Seyda told the conference, adding: “We reassure the Alawites and they are an essential part of the Syrian people,” in reference to a Shiite sect which Assad belongs to.

The “Friends of Syria” meeting hosted world powers attempting to secure a political situation to the 16 month-long conflict, is discussing a United States call for tough new U.N. sanctions against Assad and his inner circle. Over 100 Western and Arab nations have attended.

But despite the more than 16,500 people estimated killed in the 16-month uprising against Assad’s regime, key Syria allies Russia and China are not attending despite reports of changing attitudes in Moscow.

Hollande outlined five commitments to the Syrian people.

He urged the over 100 countries attending to reject "impunity for crimes," to push "the real and effective application of economic sanctions," greater backing for the opposition including "giving them means of communication," humanitarian aid and a pledge to "rebuild this beautiful country."

Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague, meanwhile, said countries which are not imposing sanctions on Syria are allowing further killing.

"There is no way of sitting on the sidelines on this," Hague said.

"If you don't impose sanctions and implement them thoroughly you are allowing the provision to the Assad regime of the means to go on killing the Syrian people," Hague said.

Russia denies siding with Assad

Russia said Friday it “categorically” rejected the idea it was siding with Bashar al-Assad’s regime in the Syria conflict, after Moscow’s position was slammed at the Friends of Syria meeting in Paris.

“I categorically reject the formulation that Russia supports (President) Bashar al-Assad’s regime in the situation that has developed in Syria,” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said following tough criticism from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other top Western diplomats.

The Paris meeting follows a gathering in Tunis and another in Istanbul, both of which called in vain for tougher action against Assad’s government.

China did not attend either of those meetings, in which the United States, France, Britain, Germany and Arab nations Saudi Arabia and Qatar led a group of more than 60 members, including most EU states and many Arab League nations.

Quotes from the envoys

At the meeting, Saudi Deputy Foreign Minister Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah said that the situation in Syria is approaching a collapse for the regime, in light of the high number of army defections.

The UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, meanwhile, criticized the absence of international envoy Kofi Annan from the meeting.

Libya’s foreign minister said: “The fate of Assad will be like that of slain leader Muammar Qaddafi, who was toppled and killed by rebels last year.”

“How many Syrians must die before we change our strategy?” The UAE envoy asked the meeting, calling also for the Syrian opposition to unite.
The Saudi Arabia deputy foreign minister said: “We need to take firm actions against the regime to stop the killings in Syria.”

Syrian activist Riyad Seif revealed the presence of two million Syrian refugees inside the country. He pointed out that almost 90% of the residents of Duma are now homeless.

Syrian activist Rima Flaihan underlined the importance of specifying a unified vision for the Syrian opposition regarding the transitional period.

Japan ‘s Foreign Minister said: “Stopping the violence in Syria is the responsibility of the Syrian regime.”

The Italian envoy at the meeting, meanwhile, said the international community has failed so far to protect the Syrian people.

The Australian Foreign Minister said: “No one would want to shake Assad ‘s hand.”

U.N. observers

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who did not attend the meeting, is expected to recommend further options for the future of the 300-strong unarmed military observer force in Syria to the 15-nation Security Council on Friday.

The deeply divided Security Council must make a decision on what to do with mission before July 20. Russia and China, which have twice vetoed resolutions condemning Damascus for its assault on the opposition and threatened it with sanctions, have indicated they want the U.N. mission to remain in place as is.

But the United States, European council members and others have suggested that keeping hundreds of military observers in Syria to monitor a non-working ceasefire makes no sense.

The council is scheduled to discuss the issue on Wednesday and is due to vote on July 18.

The monitoring mission’s mandate, which expires on July 20, calls for up to 300 unarmed military observers and an unspecified number of civilian experts. The mandate does not require that all 300 be in the country at any given time.

The mission’s head General Robert Mood suggested on Thursday that he would support such a reconfiguration of the mission. He said the mission must stay, despite the fact the ceasefire it was sent to police is non-existent and violence is reaching an “unprecedented level.”

But Mood said the 300-strong mission should be restructured to help support the political dialogue that foreign powers consider essential.