Rita Daou, AFP
Last updated: 2 April, 2012

‘Friends of Syria’ hit brakes to avoid conflict, says analysts

Sunday’s “Friends of Syria” conference sidestepped solid measures against the Damascus regime for fear of getting sucked into a conflict that could defy control, analysts and experts said.

Although most countries are committed to a political transition that puts President Bashar al-Assad out of power, they are concerned with the military venture they might have to risk for that, observers suggested.

“Europeans do not have the means and willingness to get involved in a new conflict after what happened in Libya,” said Agnes Levallois, a Middle East expert based in Paris.

“Everybody is afraid of getting stuck in the conflict.”

Sunday’s conference boasted dramatic words and open challenges from top world officials against Damascus, but the results were limited with “not much” coming out of the final statement, Levallois commented.

Representatives from around 83 countries gathered in Istanbul Sunday to try to thrash out a new way to make Damascus halt its repression of dissent that has claimed close to 10,000 lives in Syria, according to estimates.

But the statement that emerged from the meeting did not go as far as supplying arms to rebels, or recognising the Syrian National Council — also represented at the conference — as the only voice of the Syrian opposition.

The text lent strong backing to international envoy Kofi Annan’s peace plan for an immediate ceasefire and called for a timeline to be set for its implementation, but failed to suggest a deadline.

The lack of enthusiasm for giving arms to the opposition despite its strong demand reflects the absence of faith in the SNC’s capacity to represent everybody, an analyst from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy told AFP.

“There are still a lot of divisions within the SNC and everybody wants arms,” Andrew Tabler said of the main opposition group, which won recognition as “a legitimate representative” from Sunday’s conference.

“Countries are cautious as they realise that giving arms (to rebels) could end up inflaming the situation,” he warned.

Syria has all the the sectarian and religious variety of the volatile Middle East, and unity under one umbrella proves elusive.

Similarly, the countries of the so-called Friends group have their own agendas to worry about, and rivalries in the same region to watch out for, another expert suggested.

“Some want to help bring democracy to Syria, others who are part of the cold war between Iran and the alliance of Saudi Arabia and Qatar want to prevail in regional conflicts,” Oraib al-Rantawi of the Amman-based Al Quds Center for Political Studies noted.

“What happened yesterday was a compromise between the two,” he said of the conference that gave leverage and funds to the Syrian opposition, but stopped short of calling on Assad to step down.

Meanwhile in Damascus, the meeting was deemed a failure for the “Enemies of Syria,” as Al-Baath newspaper, considered Assad’s mouthpiece, said the group produced only meagre results.

Russia also rejected the Annan plan deadline called for by the conference, after it refused to attend the gathering along with China.

Although the death toll might increase and violence drag on, military intervention in Syria does not seem likely in 2012, with elections in France and the United States, and the eurozone crisis raging in Europe, Rantawi predicted.

US President Barack Obama “built his electoral campaign on withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, he can’t announce a third crisis to Americans now,” he added.

But despite overriding priorities, the “Friends of Syria” are still committed to bringing Assad down, according to Paul Salem of the Beirut-based Carnegie Center for the Middle East.

He noted that many, including Turks and Americans, voiced stronger opinions in Istanbul than they did in Tunis in the first conference late February.

“The West and the public opinion in Western countries are not ready now for a military option,” he said.

“But the option is not dead, it is still very much on the table.”