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Nations, activists seeking Assad’s exit to meet at ‘Friends of Syria’

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Foreign ministers and senior diplomats from the “Friends of Syria” - a group that includes the United States, France, Saudi Arabia and Turkey - are due to meet in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly on Friday.

“I just expect ideas to be presented. There will be no concrete plans,” Arab League Secretary General Nabil El-Erabi told Reuters. “Governments are not ready to put plans into action and the Security Council is not agreeing on anything.”

The 18-month uprising against Assad’s rule has killed around 30,000 people, according to activists. The protests have further escalated into an armed insurgency fighting with sectarian overtones that could drag in regional powers.

Appearing on the sidelines of the world’s largest diplomatic gathering, Syrian activists, many of whom have flown in from Syria, will attend a meeting of the ad-hoc Friends of Syria group hosted by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Syrian grassroots activists, who are working to run field hospitals and repair fuel lines, will Friday urge world leaders to do more to help a stricken people caught up in the battle to oust the Assad regime.


Clinton is expected to unveil further funding to help the Syrian opposition as it battles to topple Assad.

The United States has already provided some $100 million in humanitarian assistance, and a further $25 million in non-lethal aid. Washington has however also insisted it will not bow to calls to arm the rebels, fearing it will further complicate the situation on the ground.

In a sign of the dangers they are facing, the representatives of some of the Syrian political opposition groups and revolutionary councils springing up in liberated areas such as Homs and Aleppo have asked not to be identified.

“It’s important to recognize the courage of these people, but also we need to hear from them firsthand about the types of support that they want,” a senior State Department official said Thursday.

The talks in New York will focus on what extra support can be given to the opposition, what the humanitarian needs are and how pressure can be increased on the Assad regime, the official said.

“None of this is happening as quickly as we would like, in terms of the regime leaving, of Bashar al-Assad and his clique stepping aside to allow a transition to go forward,” the US official said.

“That said, the regime is steadily losing ground if you look at the changes on the ground... the regime is definitely slipping militarily,” he said, pointing to cracks in the Assad power structure including defections, military losses, and the loss of control of many of the border crossings with Turkey and Iraq.

One of the major concerns is the growing refugee crisis. About one million to 1.5 million people are internally displaced, with a further 300,000 having slipped into neighboring countries, according to UN estimates.

Iraq will join a meeting of the Friends of Syria for the first time, in growing recognition of the role it plays in the region, and the number of refugees it is now hosting.

The General Assembly this week highlighted the global stalemate, with most of the 193-states condemning events in Syria but showing no substance behind their rhetoric.

Russia, which has three times vetoed a Security Council resolution on Syria, stuck to its position: Assad’s departure should not be a precondition for a political transition and under no circumstances will it support a UN resolution that could lead to military intervention.

Painting a bleak picture of mediation efforts, U.N.-Arab League representative Lakhdar Brahimi told the Security Council that the situation in Syria is worsening and Assad’s government is clinging to the hope of returning to the past. Five weeks into the job, he admitted he had no plan but “a few ideas.”

Opponents of the Syrian president look less united in their approach. Qatar called for an alternative plan and once again urged Arab states to create a regional force to stop the bloodshed.

President Barack Obama, preoccupied with his re-election bid on Nov. 6, barely mentioned Syria in his address to delegates. Former colonial power France urged the UN to protect areas “liberated” in Syria, but officials acknowledged behind the scenes the calls were essentially symbolic.

Most nations, including Russia and China, agree on the principles of a previously proposed six-point peace plan and framework of an accord struck in Geneva between the permanent members of the Security Council.
Both those plans are stillborn unless an agreement with Russia can be struck on how to ensure they are implemented.

“Unfortunately, all these mediations have failed,” Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told Reuters. “We all support Lakhdar Brahimi, but we have learned that there must be a stronger mandate given to the special representative.”

He said the Friends of Syria was created to defend the rights of the Syrian people and not to undermine the United Nations. The group now seems as hamstrung as the Security Council.