Friends of Syria ready ultimatum

US, Europe and Arab nations want President Assad out to end brutal crackdown

The United States, Europe and Arab countries were set on Friday to back a proposal for Syrian President Bashar Assad to step aside and allow in humanitarian assistance to end a brutal crackdown against opponents.

Demonstrators hold placard reading ‘Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin says to Syria’s Assad, my cuddly murderer of his people’, during a protest against the Syrian president in Kafranbel near Idlib on Friday. REUTERS

American, European and Arab officials are meeting in a major international “Friends of Syria” conference in Tunisia to work out the details for their 72-hour ultimatum to end the violence and allow in aid, which will be backed by as yet unspecified punishments.

A draft of the conference’s final declaration also states that the Syrian National Council, an umbrella group of opposition organisations, will be recognised as “a legitimate representative of Syrians” and promised additional “practical” support for opposition groups.

“This conference will help the Syrian people, the revolutionaries, I think, they will give us the power as a national council, a political umbrella for the revolution inside Syria and I think they will push the international community to take good steps against the Syrian regime,” Haithem al-Maleh, executive director of the Syrian National Council told journalists ahead of the conference.

Former United Nations chief, Kofi Annan, was also named to be a joint UN-Arab League envoy to deal with the crisis.

International action over Syria has so far been hindered by Russia and China’s continued opposition to any foreign intervention in Syria.

Both nations say they support a “speedy end” to the violence, but they have vetoed two UN Security Council resolutions backing Arab League plans aimed at ending the conflict and condemning Assad’s crackdown.

Alexei Pushkov, a Russian lawmaker, said on Friday after meeting Assad in Damascus that the Syrian president sounded confident and demonstrated no sign he would he step aside. Pushkov warned that arming the Syrian opposition would fuel civil war.

In a statement on Friday, the Russian Foreign Ministry also called for “an immediate mutual cease-fire” to allow the wounded to be evacuated from Homs, and urged both the government and the opposition to take urgent steps to ease the humanitarian crisis. The ministry also voiced support for Annan’s mission.

Western intelligence officials, however, said they believe Russia’s patience may be running out with Syrian regime.

Tunisia’s official spokesman Adnan Mancer said Russia and China must “look to the future of their relations with the Arab world and consider what happens after Assad.”

Diplomats said the meeting in Tunis on Friday would demand Assad’s compliance. They said failure on his part would result in tougher sanctions and predicted that his opponents would grow stronger unless he accedes and accepts a political transition that would see him leave power.

Four killed

Homs has been under a fierce government attack for nearly three weeks. Government troops continued to shell rebel-held areas in central Syria on Friday, killing at least four people, activists said.

More than 5,400 people have been killed in the conflict, according to a UN estimate in January. Hundreds more have died since and Syrian activists place the death toll at more than 7,300. Overall figures cannot be independently confirmed because Syria strictly limits independent reporting.

More than 70 nations and international organizations are expected at the Tunis meeting.

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