Syrian National Council leader Burhan Ghalioun
Syrian National Council leader Burhan Ghalioun speaks during a press conference in Istanbul. Expectations are low of an international conference Sunday in Istanbul having much impact on the Syrian crisis, as discord among the so-called "Friends of Syria" outweighs their agreements. © Bulent Kilic - AFP
Syrian National Council leader Burhan Ghalioun
Rita Daou and Ceren Kumova, AFP
Last updated: March 31, 2012

Dissent among 'Friends of Syria' dims hopes for talks

Expectations are low of an international conference Sunday in Istanbul having much impact on the Syrian crisis, as discord among the so-called "Friends of Syria" outweighs their agreements.

More than 70 representatives from Western and Arab countries will gather to craft a solution aimed at halting the killing in Syria, after more than a year that has left between 9,000 and 10,000 people dead in a crackdown on dissent by Bashar al-Assad's regime.

But analysts say that although they might aspire to the common goal of stopping the slaughter, their differences on how to get there will hobble a unified vision for the future.

"I have great reservations and much scepticism about what will happen in this conference. It seems to me there is a retreat by the international community with regard to the Syrian crisis," Agnes Levallois, a Middle East expert based in Paris, told AFP.

Levallois predicted that the world will prefer to leave it to former UN secretary general Kofi Annan, the envoy for the United Nations and Arab League, to handle the crisis instead of trying to build on his peace plan.

"We will go on saying the Annan plan is the only solution, giving all possible verbal support and trying to break the deadlock with humanitarian aid," she added.

Such a policy will play into Assad's hands, enabling him to buy more time for his regime, she warned.

The Syrian opposition, while fragmented, is seeking a more tangible outcome from the conference, the second major meeting after a conference in Tunis in February, hoping it will not be swayed by Assad's ostensible approval of Annan's call for a peaceful solution.

Hours ahead of the conference, leader of the main opposition Syrian National Council, Burhan Ghalioun, urged "Friends of Syria" to back the arming of rebels, signalling high expectations on part of the opposition.

"We have repeatedly called for the arming of the Free Syrian Army. We want the 'Friends of Syria' conference to live up to this demand," he said.

The regime declared on Saturday it had defeated those seeking to bring it down while reiterating support for Annan's plan.

But troops reportedly continued shelling rebels in the city of Homs and foreign ministry spokesman Jihad Makdisi said they would only draw back from urban areas once the security situation is stable.

"The regime wants to send a message to the Friends of Syria that all is well and they have control of the situation, to break the morale of the revolution," said Wadi Jamal, head of the office of the SNC that coordinates with rebels on the ground.

"We hope that the conference will not be like that of Tunis, but that it will take real decisions to stop the killings," he said.

But he feared that the conference will not live up to expectations, leaving more blood to pour onto Syrian streets.

"What must be addressed is an air embargo, and real help to secure a humanitarian corridor into Syria," he added.

Earlier discussions of a no-fly zone over Syria seem to have given way to assurances from the world's top diplomats that they will bolster Annan's plan, which rules out any military interference in Syria.

The conference does not aim at paralleling Annan's initiative, but rather to act as an endorsement for it, a European diplomat said, while a US State Department official predicted it would focus on how to support the international envoy.

Annan's plan calls for a commitment to stop all armed violence, a daily two-hour humanitarian ceasefire, media access to all areas affected by the fighting, an inclusive Syrian-led political process, a right to demonstrate, and the release of arbitrarily detained people.

Dissent within the opposition however remains an element that ties the hands of the international community, which hesitates on the degree of support it can vest in the various factions under the SNC umbrella.

Although a number of opposition groups named Tuesday the SNC as their sole representative, other factions and figures have abandoned the council, fearing a lack of recognition for their views in welding Syria's future.

Without a unified voice from the opposition, it proves even harder to recognise the rebels, even for the Arab League, which excluded Syria last November to pressure Assad into stopping his crackdown.

Now the Arab League is battling its own divisions, with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, two key players in the region, opting for arming the Syrian rebels, while others fear such a move could place weapons into the wrong hands.

The current president of the Arab League, Iraq, announced on Saturday that it may skip the Istanbul meeting, boycotted by China and Russia, which have twice before blocked UN Security Council resolutions on Syria.

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