Nations want 'tsunami wave' of pressure on al-Assad
CNN Wire Staff
Tunis, Tunisia (CNN) -- World powers convening Friday in Tunisia called for a political solution in Syria and what one diplomat calls a "tsunami wave" of pressure that would peel away internal support for the embattled regime.
Meeting in the cradle of the Arab Spring, the Friends of Syria conference began setting the groundwork for a political transition in Syria, not unlike the international planning that forged the changes in Libya, where Moammar Gadhafi's regime was toppled.
The group, comprising dozens of international countries and entities, developed a plan to deliver immediate humanitarian aid, give political legitimacy to the Syrian opposition and endorse the idea of a joint Arab-U.N. peacekeeping force.
As the conference unfolded, rescue crews with the International Committee of the Red Cross began evacuating wounded and sick women and children from the besieged Syrian city of Homs who were trapped by a security forces offensive for three weeks.
In Tunis, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Friday the end of President Bashar al-Assad's regime "can mark a new beginning."
She urged a negotiated political solution and a democratic transition for Syria, and announced that the United States is providing $10 million for humanitarian efforts. Clinton also said the "crimes against humanity must stop."
Clinton made no reference to helping the militias fighting the al-Assad regime. But Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said that arming the Syrian opposition is an "excellent idea."
"They have to protect themselves. There is somebody being hit at with arms. And being the recipient of harm to not able to defend himself of family and property is not something enjoyable to see," said the prince, who believes humanitarian gestures are not enough to help the Syrians.
U.S. officials have said it isn't ready to take that step but it isn't ruling out other options. Clinton said she would address the issue later.
Syrian TV has denounced the Tunis gathering, saying it supports terror and calling it "a meeting of the friends of America and Israel."
The meeting took place as Syrian security forces continued a nearly year-long crackdown on civilian protesters.
At least 91 people were killed Friday.
The dead include 18 corpses found in the Hama province town of Khatab and 30 people in Homs, the epicenter of resistance that has endured 21 days of daily shelling, according to the Local Coordination Committees of Syria, a network of opposition groups.
The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency said terrorists shot and killed a law enforcement member and injured two others Friday in Homs. It also said that dozens of members of "armed terrorist groups" in the city surrendered and gave their weapons to authorities.
The evacuation of victims from Homs marks a glimmer of hope for residents who'd been pinned down under shelling and sniper fire for weeks.
"This first step has just started and this is good news at this stage," ICRC spokeswoman Carla Haddad Mardini told CNN.
When asked if international journalists wounded in the city would be brought out, Mardini said the mission was "to evacuate all wounded and sick in urgent need of medical assistance without any exception."
European Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton said Friday that the "humanitarian situation and lack of access for food and medical supplies is our most urgent and immediate concern."
She called for all military forces to withdraw from towns and cities and urged unhindered access for aid groups.
In Tunisia, the Friends of Syria group -- which saw a video message from opposition leaders in Homs -- is intent on stopping the bloodshed and fostering peace.
It formed after the U.N. Security Council to adopt a resolution condemning the violence and pursuing a transfer of power. The group includes the United States, Arab nations, Turkey and other European countries.
Neither Russia, which is a Soviet-era ally and arms dealer to Syria, nor China is participating in the Tunisia meeting. Both countries vetoed the U.N. resolution.
The nations participating in the meeting unveiled a plan for delivering emergency aid. It called on al-Assad to "immediately cease all violence" and allow unimpeded access for aid, an effort that would be spearheaded by the United Nations.
The United Nations is expected to have a major role in a post-Assad Syria. Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan was named joint special envoy of the United Nations and Arab League on the Syrian crisis.
The United States, Turkey, the Arab League and the European Union have initiated sanctions against Syria, but Clinton said more must be done.
"It's time for everyone here to place travel bans on senior members of the regime -- as the Arab League has done -- freeze their assets, boycott Syrian oil, suspend new investments, and consider closing embassies and consulates. For nations that have already imposed sanctions, we must vigorously enforce them," she said.
The Friends of Syria group wants to stress the idea that there's an alternative to al-Assad and it believes it can persuade traditional regime supporters, such as the military, minority Alawites -- who prevail in the military -- and business elites to switch allegiances.
"To those Syrians who still support Assad, especially members of the Syrian military: understand that this regime has no future. The longer you carry out its campaign of violence, the more it will stain your honor. But if you refuse to take part in attacks on your fellow citizens, your countrymen will hail you as heroes," she said.
The opposition Syrian National Council gained diplomatic legitimacy at the conference.
Clinton said it is "a leading legitimate representative of Syrians seeking peaceful democratic change" and it is "an effective representative for the Syrian people with governments and international organization."
Clinton met with members of the council. A senior State Department official said they told Clinton they were pleased with the conference turnout and the initiative.
"The Syrian people have not surrendered, nor will they give up. A free people was born in Syria and it does not fear death, nor does it accept any bargain to give away its long-deprived rights or give up its sovereignty by any definition," SNC leader Burhan Ghalioun said at the conference, referring to neighborhoods being terrorized by the regime.
The Friends of Syria intends to address economic issues create a working group on economic recovery and development, a diplomat said.
The diplomat said the conference communique will also endorse the Arab League's request to the Security Council to form a joint Arab-U.N. peacekeeping force after the cessation of violence.
Many groups have been calling for practical international help for civilians caught in the crossfire. Despite Russia and China's absence from the conference, Human Rights Watch urged the Friends of Syria to get the support of Moscow and Beijing in persuading Syria to stop shelling Homs, to permit humanitarian aid and to obtain "safe passage" for civilians who want to leave the country.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said it is concerned over the clashes, particularly in Homs, and noted that "urgent measures need to be taken as soon as possible to stop any violence leading to the death of innocent people."