Western and Arab nations are to challenge Syria to allow in desperately needed humanitarian aid at a meeting Friday aimed at increasing pressure on President Bashar al-Assad to end his bloody crackdown.
More than 60 nations are gathering in Tunisia for the first “Friends of Syria” conference, amid continuing violence in the flashpoint city of Homs and a growing global outcry over the deaths of thousands of civilians.
But the conference of Arab and Western foreign ministers will be marked by the absence of Russia and China — highlighting the difficulty in building an international consensus on Syria.
Both countries refused to attend and have frustrated efforts to rein in Assad’s regime, including by vetoing UN Security Council resolutions.
An early draft of the meeting’s declaration said it could call for the Syrian government “to implement an immediate ceasefire and to allow free and unimpeded access by the UN… and humanitarian agencies.”
The UN is stepping up its efforts to deal with the crisis and on Thursday named its former leader Kofi Annan as a joint UN-Arab League envoy for Syria.
“I look forward to having the full cooperation of all relevant parties and stakeholders in support of this united and determined effort… to help bring an end to the violence and human rights abuses, and promote a peaceful solution to the Syrian crisis,” Annan said after his appointment.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Friday’s meeting was looking for “concrete progress on three fronts: providing humanitarian relief, increasing pressure on the regime, and preparing for a democratic transition.”
“We hope to see new pledges of emergency assistance for Syrians caught in Assad’s stranglehold, and international coordination and diplomatic pressure on Damascus to allow it to get to those who need it most,” she told reporters in London.
Bassma Kodmani, a spokeswoman for main opposition group the Syrian National Council (SNC), repeated calls on Friday for the creation of three humanitarian corridors: one from Lebanon to assist Homs, one from Turkey to help Idlib and one from Jordan to help Deraa.
“What is absolutely urgent for us in Tunis is to ask for humanitarian assistance,” she told France Inter radio, adding that the opposition hoped “Russia could put pressure on the Assad regime” to accept aid convoys.
The draft declaration demanded that humanitarian groups be allowed in to Syria to assess the need for aid and “be permitted to deliver vital relief goods and services to civilians affected by violence.”
It threatened increased sanctions, including travel bans, asset freezes, a stop to oil purchases and the closure of foreign embassies in Damascus and Syrian embassies in other capitals.
The SNC has warned that military intervention might be the “only option” to end the crackdown, but Western and Arab nations have so far rejected the idea of a foreign mission similar to the operation that helped topple the Libyan regime.
The draft declaration also called for the Arab League to convene a meeting of the Syrian opposition and praised the SNC.
But it did not appear to give the SNC exclusive recognition, calling it only “a legitimate representative of Syrians seeking peaceful democratic change.”
Activists say more than 7,600 people, mostly civilians, have died since Assad’s hardline regime launched a crackdown to snuff out a revolt that began with peaceful protests in March 2011.
Monitors said 86 people were killed across Syria Thursday, 61 of them civilians.
And at least two civilians were killed Friday as Syrian forces for the 21st day shelled a rebel-held area of Homs, where US reporter Marie Colvin and French photojournalist Remi Ochlik were killed on Wednesday.
Opposition supporters were expected to make a new show of force after Friday prayers.
Efforts were being made to evacuate from Homs two wounded journalists — Edith Bouvier, a reporter for French daily Le Figaro, and Sunday Times photographer Paul Conroy.
Britain said on Thursday Conroy was “on his way out” of the city, while Bouvier appeared in a video online asking to be evacuated quickly, saying she needed urgent medical attention.
French ambassador to Syria Eric Chevallier returned to Damascus after being recalled to France in response to the crackdown, the embassy said Friday. It declined to comment on whether his return was related to the evacuation effort.
UN investigators on Thursday submitted a list of Syrian officials suspected of possible crimes against humanity, saying they documented a widespread and systematic pattern of gross violations “in conditions of impunity.”
Amnesty International demanded Friday that aid agencies be given immediate access to Homs and other protest cities.
“The accounts we are hearing from Homs are increasingly dire, with people lacking the most basic amenities,” said the interim deputy director of Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa Programme, Ann Harrison.
“Syrian authorities must immediately cease this relentless bombardment and allow full, immediate and unhindered humanitarian access to affected areas,” she said.