BEIRUT

Analysis

Supporters of Syrian opposition to meet in Turkey

Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses the audience during the presentation of the new symbol for the Turkish Lira in Ankara March 1, 2012. (REUTERS/Umit Bektas)

ISTANBUL: China and Russia turned down invitations. Iran didn't get one. The absence of these key supporters of the Syrian regime at a meeting in Istanbul on Sunday highlights the global division over how to stop the bloodshed in Syria as much as the unity of dozens of participating countries from the Western and Arab worlds.

Then there are differences in tone and priorities in the "Friends of the Syrian People" group that aims to encourage the Syrian opposition into unifying its scattered ranks. Saudi Arabia and Qatar want to arm Syrian rebels, Turkey is making contingency plans for a buffer zone in Syria if refugee flows surge, and the United States, in an election year, says military force against the Syrian government is a last resort.

Even nations that relentlessly championed diplomacy as the best way to isolate Syrian President Bashar Assad and force him to step down are showing fatigue with that approach. Some fear Assad only agreed to a peace plan presented by U.N. envoy Kofi Annan in order to buy time and deflect outside pressure, and note fighting has not let up since the deal was announced.

"From the moment that was said, deaths in Syria have not stopped," Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said. "They are continuing still. There is no point in saying: 'I hope, I await, I expect.' There is no point in it. Because he is continuing to kill. Faced with such a scene, I have no such hope."

Annan's plan calls for an immediate, two-hour halt in fighting every day to allow humanitarian access and medical evacuations. The plan also outlines a complete cease-fire and calls for an inclusive, Syrian-led political process to address the concerns of citizens.

But skepticism about Assad's intentions suggests Turkey and other countries that say he should quit now have low expectations for the U.N. peace plan. Syrian opposition figures question the idea that Assad would help to oversee reforms, presumably including a political transition leading to his exit, after presiding over the deaths of thousands of his own people in order to stay in power.

"It seems the world, the international community, is still exhausting all efforts, all diplomatic solutions, all solutions that do not involve military action," said Bassam Imadi, a member of the opposition Syrian National Council who believes the Syrian government will not abide by Annan's plan.

"All the regime is doing is to gain time and more time and more time in hope that the regime will be able to crush the uprising and people will go back home," Imadi said. "But, of course, this is not going to happen."

Annan's call for talks within Syria appears to contradict the premise of key nations at the Istanbul meeting that believe Assad must go now. However, the broad nature of the U.N. proposal was designed to win the support of Russia and China, which earlier blocked action against the Syrian regime in Security Council vetoes.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was expected in Istanbul for the one-day meeting after talks in Saudi Arabia on devising a unified strategy on stopping the Syrian crackdown and gaining humanitarian access to beleaguered communities there. More than 9,000 people have been killed in Syria's violence since last March, according to U.N. estimates. Hundreds of thousands have fled their homes.

"Turkey and the United States both believe military force is absolutely a last resort, an undesirable one," Francis Ricciardone, the U.S. Ambassador to Turkey, told reporters in Istanbul. "We are working within the bounds of international law and diplomacy. And we are doing it together. This is a situation with no easy answers, no simple answers, no magic, that can be produced."

He said of the Istanbul meeting: "Will it lead to an instant solution on Monday morning? I don't think so. But will we be closer? Yes, I think so."

A Turkish analyst, Osman Bahadir Dincer, compared negotiations with the Syrian regime to "putting a brain dead patient on a life support machine," and said that even Russia and Iran, Assad's allies, were building ties with "various actors" in preparation for a post-Assad era.

"The United States speaks of a change in Syria and appears to support it diplomatically, but at the moment it does not want to intervene or pay a price for it. But this does not mean that it won't intervene at any time," said Dincer, a Syria expert at the International Strategic Research Organization, a center in Ankara, the Turkish capital.

"It can be expected that, as in Libya, it will try to intervene by putting an ally like Turkey to the fore," he said.

Turkey, which shares a long border with Syria and hosts about 18,000 refugees, has been one of the most vocal critics of the regime there and its leaders were frustrated by Assad's failure to heed their calls for reform last year. In an interview with The Associated Press late Friday, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Syria was a Cold War-era case of the "illusion of autocratic regimes."

"They think that after a while, they will control the situation. But when they do more oppression, then pressure, then they are losing more control," said Davutoglu, who has traveled to Syria dozens of times in the last decade.

Of Assad, he said: "Unfortunately, he did not show vision, courage, and understand the logic, the logic of the flow of history."

 

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