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22nd Feb 2020

'Chaotic' meeting exposes divisions on Syria

  • Saudi foreign minister Faisal - keen to arm fellow Sunni Muslim rebels in Syria (Photo: London Summit)

A first meeting of the Friends of Syria group has highlighted divisions inside the coalition and among Syrian opposition leaders.

Officials and ministers from over 60 African, Arab, Asian, Latin American and Nato countries met in Tunis on Friday (24 February) to discuss what to do about the sectarian war in Syria.

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  • Syrian artifact on sale in Lebanon (Photo: EUobserver)

A core group - including Egypt, the EU's External Action Service, France, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the UK and the US - drafted a formal communique in the name of the coalition, which repeated the content of a draft UN resolution vetoed last month by China and Russia.

The statement said Syrian leader Bashar Assad should step down and hold elections under Arab League supervision. It called for worldwide economic and diplomatic sanctions. But it did not endorse military intervention and it did not recognise the Syrian National Council (SNC), an opposition group, as Syria's new government, calling it "a" but not "the" legitimate representative of the anti-Assad movement.

Delegates also agreed to meet again in Turkey in March and, later on, in France.

One EU diplomat in Tunis called the event "chaotic," with ministers going in and out for bilateral huddles. Some EU delegations left early for other commitments.

Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia emerged as hawks.

Saudi foreign minister Saud Faisal told press the Friends of Syria should ship arms to rebels: "I think it would be an excellent idea ... because they need to protect themselves." Qatar and Tunisia called for Arab countries to send in troops.

British foreign minister William Hague ruled out military aid, however. France, Turkey and the US stayed silent on the issue.

For their part, SNC delegates said they were disappointed by the outcome. They added in their own communique that: "The Friends of Syria should not constrain individual countries from aiding the Syrian opposition by means of military advisers, training and provision of arms."

Meanwhile, a rival Syrian opposition group, the National Co-ordination Committee for Democratic Change, boycotted the event. It complained the SNC is getting preferential treatment and that hawks are using the meeting to legitimise military action.

China and Russia also declined to send anyone to Tunis in a sign of their ongoing support for Assad.

Another EU diplomat noted there is division even inside the EU camp.

He said it was a "mistake" to meet in Tunis, the symbolic birthplace of the Arab Spring, because it gives the false impression the sectarian war in Syria is an Arab-Spring-type democratic movement.

He added that EU support for an Arab-League-led transition in Syria has fortified Assad's "siege mentality" because the Arab League is dominated by Qatar and Saudi Arabia - two Sunni Muslim powers which are long-standing sectarian enemies of Assad's Alawite Muslim regime.

EU foreign ministers in Brussels on Monday plan to unveil a set of further anti-Assad sanctions.

Diplomatic sources said the Union will add seven regime members to the EU blacklist and take one name off the existing register. It will also blackball the Syrian central bank, forbid EU countries from letting Syrian cargo planes land at their airports and ban trade in Syrian gold and gems.

The accompanying EU statement is to endorse the Tunis communique and deplore Assad's slaughter of civilians in Homs. It will call for the Syrian opposition to form a united front and to respect the rights of all minorities, amid reports that Sunni Muslim rebels are also committing atrocities against Alawite prisoners.

In a footnote to events, a businessman in Tripoli, in neighbouring Lebanon, last week told this website that the 11-month-old unrest in Syria has led to increased looting of antiquities.

The 36-year-old cafe owner offered to sell EUobserver a gold, classical-era medallion from over the border.

He said his best customers are European and American diplomats because they have money and because they can use diplomatic privileges to smuggle items out of Lebanon.

EU countries want UN peacekeepers in Syria

Libya-type military strikes in Syria are still "out of the question," but France, Italy and the UK have backed a call to send in UN peacekeepers.

Russia: EU and US want war with Syria

Russia has accused Nato countries of trying to start a war with Syria and foment unrest in Iran - claims backed up by some Western security analysts.

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