BEIRUT

Middle East

Paris hosts new 'Friends of Syria' meet as slaughter goes on

PARIS: France Friday hosts a third "Friends of Syria" meeting aiming to co-ordinate Western and Arab efforts to stop violence in the country, amid reports Russia is being asked to take President Bashar Assad in exile.

The Paris meeting follows one in Tunis in February and another in April in Istanbul that both called in vain for tougher action against the Assad regime.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said the latest gathering represents "increased support for the Syrian people" and "pressure on the regime" to end its violent crackdown on protest.

The United States, France, Britain, Germany, and Arab nations Saudi Arabia and Qatar are leaders of the "Friends", whose more than 60 members include most of the EU states and many Arab League countries.

Fighting in Syria has intensified in recent weeks as government and opposition forces have received more weapons from foreign backers. Monitors say the conflict has killed more than 16,500 people since March last year.

A Western diplomat said the Paris meeting was meant to "encourage" the Syrian opposition to become a credible interlocutor for the outside world and to increase pressure on the Syrian regime to allow peace plans to be applied.

World powers agreed a plan for a Syria transition last weekend in Geneva that made no explicit call for Assad to quit power, but the West swiftly made clear it saw no role for him in a unity government.

The Geneva plan also called on all parties to recommit to a sustained cessation of armed violence, and an immediate implementation of international envoy Kofi Annan's six-point peace plan.

But Russia has said it will stay away from the Paris meeting on the situation in its key Middle East ally after accusing the West of seeking to distort the Geneva deal.

Russia's Kommersant daily reported meanwhile that Western nations led by the United States were seeking to persuade Moscow to host Assad in exile.

Quoting a Russian diplomatic source, it said there were "active attempts" to persuade Moscow to offer a home to Assad, whose fate has become a major sticking point.

Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov later denied the report.

China, which did not attend the previous two "Friends of Syria" meetings, was also unlikely to attend the Paris gathering, a foreign ministry spokesman said in Beijing.

The main opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) has called for robust action from the "Friends" meeting.

"We demand that the Paris meeting make a more decisive decision after the failure of Geneva," said Monzer Makhous, the SNC's coordinator for foreign relations.

He noted that the SNC wants the United Nations Security Council to pass a resolution that would oblige Assad's regime to accept the Annan plan and the creation of buffer zones protected by a no-fly zone.

France and the United States are favorable to such a resolution, but Russia, which has veto rights in the Council, is fiercely opposed.

Syria's fractured opposition groups had hoped to be able to present to the Paris meeting a united vision of what might happen in Syria in any transition period.

But two days of talks in Cairo with this in mind ended in chaos Wednesday as they failed to forge a common vision.

The groups agreed broadly that any transition must exclude Assad and agreed to support the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA).

But disagreements led to heated arguments, walkouts and even fist fights, participants said.

Joseph Bahout, a professor at the Sciences Po institute in Paris, said that "this multitude of meetings that end in fiasco is ridiculous".

"This shows the disarray of the West and certain Arab countries -- they no longer have anything of importance to offer. The only thing that will change things is the situation on the ground," he said.

 

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