By John Irish and Daniel Flynn
PARIS, April 19 (Reuters) - The “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,” the French-language statement said as French officials hosted senior diplomats from a dozen or so like-minded governments. “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 draft added: “Though fragile, the Annan mission represents a last hope.”
The 14-nation group - including the United States, Britain, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, as well as France - called on the Syria authorities to end all violence immediately and said it would work to ensure the success of Annan’s Arab League-U.N. plan: “If this were not to happen,” the statement said, “The U.N. Security Council and international community would have to look at other options.”
France said United Nations observers must be deployed quickly to Syria and that failure of the plan would put the country on a path to a civil war that could spill out into the surrounding region.
“We cannot wait, time is short,” Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told the meeting. “The observers must be deployed fast and must be able to act without obstacles.”
The draft statement said the minister 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 destabilised the region”.
Before the meeting, Juppe said at least 300-400 U.N. observers would be required in Syria and that foreign powers would discuss new ways to end the violence in case the mission failed to consolidate a week-old truce.
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 sceptical 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 U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said Syria had not fully withdrawn troops and heavy weapons from towns, as it had promised under Annan’s six-point plan to end the conflict and begin a political dialogue.
Juppe’s estimate of the number of observers required was somewhat 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 draft statement made no mention of 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 was the first country to recognise 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.
Ahead of the meeting, Sarkozy repeated calls to create a safe passage for relief organisations 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 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.
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 neighbouring 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 ahead of 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.