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19th Jan 2020

US and EU begin work on Friends of Syria group

US and EU diplomats have begun recruiting countries to join a new group designed to bring down Syria's government.

US state department spokeswoman Victoria Nulland told press in Washington on Thursday (9 February) that senior US diplomat Jeffrey Feltman met with French and Qatari leaders to draw up plans for the new coalition.

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  • France's Sarkozy receives Assad in Paris before the crisis began (Photo: elysee.fr)

She noted that Feltman was in Morocco on Wednesday and will travel to a congress in the Philippines on Friday: "He'll go tomorrow to Manama to a conference ... where there are lots of Europeans and lots of Arab League representatives to continue to talk about how this group might come together and what its mandate might be."

She added: "Now that the UN Security Council action has been blocked by the double veto [China and Russia] we are compelled to work outside the UN system."

For his part, British defence minister Philip Hammond said on a TV panel show on Thursday that he is "lobbying everybody who comes through London" to join the group.

Meanwhile, EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy tweeted from an EU-India summit in New Delhi: "We discussed the appalling [situation] in Syria." EU foreign relations chief Catherine Ashton while in Mexico urged Russia to reconsider its UN decision.

Nulland said the Friends of Syria will first meet "at some time in the relatively near future." France, Morocco or Turkey are candidates to host the inaugural event.

Almost all the main protagonists have said President Bashar Assad must go. But it remains unclear what the group will do.

A similar 'coalition of the willing' on Libya last year orchestrated the war against Gaddafi. But the EU and US have repeatedly said military strikes on Syria are out of the question.

Nulland noted the group will see "how we can provide more humanitarian support to the people."

France and Turkey have in the past spoken of setting up humanitarian "corridors" inside Syria - a move which would require international troops to protect the safe zones and which would create a brideghead for Syrian army defectors.

France has also said it might give weapons to the opposition. But British foreign minister William Hague told Sky News on Thursday: "We haven't done that in any of the [Arab Spring] conflicts or we certainly don't have any plans to do such."

The UN says the death count in Syria is at least 5,400 people - putting the number in context, the Irish troubles over a period of 30 years claimed some 3,000 lives.

"The violence and brutality I have witnessed over the last 10 months shocks me," the British ambassador to Syria, Simon Collins, wrote in his blog after leaving Damascus. "I can say without exaggeration that 6 February [when he also left] was the most emotionally taxing day of my career as a foreign service officer," the US ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, said on Facebook.

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