"Friends of Syria" say Annan plan is last hope
PARIS (Reuters) - A "Friends of Syria" coalition meeting in Paris on Thursday called a U.N.-backed peace plan the "last hope" to resolve the crisis and said they would do all they could to help it succeed, according to draft conclusions obtained by Reuters.
"Every day that passes means dozens of new Syrian civilian deaths," said the final declaration by the meeting's host, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe. "It is not time to prevaricate. It is time to act."
Alluding to fears that Syria could descend into all-out civil war if the plan worked out by international envoy Kofi Annan fails, the statement added: "Though fragile, the Annan mission represents a last hope."
The 14-nation group - including the United States, Britain, France, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar - called on Syrian authorities to end all violence immediately and said it would work to ensure the success of Annan's Arab League-U.N. plan.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stepped up the pressure on Damascus, saying the U.N. Security Council should move towards a sanctions resolution capable of being enforced if Syria does not permit an adequate monitoring mission.
"We need to continue to work and move toward a Security Council authorization so that we have the authority to proceed when the times are right," she said.
"We need to start moving very vigorously in the Security Council for a Chapter 7 sanctions resolution, including travel, financial sanctions, an arms embargo, and the pressure that that will give us on the regime to push for compliance with Kofi Annan's six-point plan," she said.
Summing up the consensus of the meeting, Juppe said that if the Annan plan did not work, "we have decided that the U.N. Security Council and the international community will examine other options to get out of this tragedy."
Clinton said a resolution for sanctions would probably be vetoed now, but her talks with her Russia counterpart Sergei Lavrov earlier on Thursday in Brussels indicated that Moscow, which with Beijing has opposed them, saw that "we are not in a static state, but a deteriorating one".
Before the meeting, Juppe told journalists that failure of the Annan plan would put Syria on a path to a civil war that could spill out into the surrounding region.
The final statement said the ministers present wanted "to put an end to 13 months of a bloodbath that has caused more than 11,000 deaths, tens of thousands of prisoners and hundreds of thousands of refugees and destabilized the region".
FRANCE WANTS MORE OBSERVERS
Asked about his earlier calls to arm the Syrian opposition, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said: "As long as the international community has not managed to put an end to this haemorrhage, this bloodbath, then at the very least they should help the Syrians to defend themselves."
Damascus and the United Nations agreed on Thursday on the terms for observers to enter the country to monitor a ceasefire, arranged more than a year after the start of an uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.
But many Western powers remain skeptical the mission will have the clout it needs. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said Syria had not fully withdrawn troops and heavy weapons from towns, as it had promised under Annan's plan to end the conflict and begin a political dialogue.
Before the meeting, Juppe said at least 300-400 U.N. observers would be required. That was higher than the 250 which Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem has said is "reasonable" and the 300 which Ban has said would be necessary to monitor the ceasefire.
The final statement mentioned no numbers for the force.
The French government of President Nicolas Sarkozy, who faces the first round of a tough re-election battle on Sunday, has long led calls for Assad to step aside and France was the first country to recognize the opposition Syrian National Council as a legitimate interlocutor.
Juppe said Paris had absolutely no trust in the Syrian leader or his government. While the truce has held in some parts of Syria, the army has kept up attacks on rebels in several opposition areas. The Syrian government says it is under attack from armed "terrorist groups".
"I am convinced that if there are several hundred observers, allowed to move around freely, and if Syria allows foreign media into the country, then things will drastically and fundamentally change," said Juppe.
Before the meeting, Sarkozy repeated calls to create a safe passage for relief organizations to get food and medicine to about 1 million civilians caught up in the fighting.
"Bashar al-Assad is lying ... He wants to wipe Homs off the map just like Gaddafi wanted to destroy Benghazi," Sarkozy told Europe 1 radio, referring to the former Libyan leader's threat which led France and others to join a U.N.-backed force against him.
"The solution is the establishment of humanitarian corridors so that an opposition can exist in Syria," Juppe said.
TOO EARLY FOR CORRIDORS
One diplomat in Paris for the meeting said there was no plan on the table for a humanitarian corridor or buffer zones.
"These options are being looked into in case of an unwanted eventuality. No decision has been made and in an ideal world they would need Security Council backing," the diplomat said.
Under the French plan, aid would be funneled into Syria from its Mediterranean cost, an airport or from neighboring countries, notably Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.
"We will discuss the need to bring in humanitarian aid," Juppe said. "Whether that is done through corridors or other ways is a technical point. What is key is to bring in aid."
Russia, which was invited along with China to the Paris meeting, stayed away because the talks were "one-sided" without representation from the Syrian government, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said.
He added that Moscow deemed the "Friends of Syria" "destructive" and said it could undermine the U.N.-Arab League plan.
Sarkozy, who trails his Socialist rival in polls before the first round of voting on Sunday, said he was convinced that China and Russia would drop their support for Damascus if the international community showed unity and that Assad's government would fall.
"The Chinese, like the Russians, do not like to be isolated and if we unite the major powers to say 'this is the direction we must go in with our Arab allies' then the isolation of China and Russia on this dossier will not last," Sarkozy said