Dozens of representatives from Western and Arab countries gathered for talks on Sunday in Istanbul, seeking ways to up the pressure on Damascus to accept a U.N.-Arab plan to stop bloodshed in Syria.
The second “Friends of Syria” conference opened with more than 70 representatives to discuss ways to ensure that the government of President Bashar al-Assad implements a plan by U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan.
Ahead of the gathering, Assad’s regime declared victory over rebels and voiced support for Annan’s plan, but kept up its shelling of rebel positions and said it had no plans to immediately withdraw troops.
More than 9,000 people have been killed by Assad’s forces during the revolt, according to the United Nations, while Damascus says it has lost about 3,000 security force members.
Despite continuing violence, Damascus claims the upper hand.
“The battle to topple the state is over,” Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad al-Makdissi told Syria TV late on Friday. He said Annan had acknowledged the government’s right to respond to armed violence during the ceasefire phase of the peace plan.
“When security can be maintained for civilians, the army will leave, he said. “This is a Syrian matter.”
A rebel spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Qassim Saad al-Din, told Reuters by telephone from Homs: “We don’t have a problem with the ceasefire. As soon as they remove their armored vehicles, the Free Syrian Army will not fire a single shot.”
Assad’s forces reportedly kept up shelling of rebels in Homs, and Makdisi said troops would only drawback from urban areas of the central city and other hot spots once the security situation is stable.
At least 32 people — 24 of them civilians — were killed in violence across Syria on Saturday, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.
The United Nations says more than 9,000 people have been killed in the Assad regime’s crackdown on an Arab Spring-inspired uprising that began a year ago with pro-democracy protests.
On the eve of the conference, the main opposition group Syrian National Council (SNC) called for outside powers to arm the rebels, while the United States and Gulf Arab states urged Annan to spell out the “next steps” if Damascus fails to implement his plan.
“The Syrian National Council expresses the demands of the Syrian people,” Council head Burhan Ghalioun told reporters. “We have repeatedly called for the arming of the Free Syrian Army.”
Ghalioun called for “a change in the balance of power” after more than a year of violence.
But an Arab League summit in Baghdad this week rejected the option of arming any side in the conflict, urging all parties to engage in a “serious national dialogue” though members Saudi Arabia and Qatar have openly called for arming the anti-Assad movement.
The U.S. has also ruled out arming the rebels for the moment, with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reaffirming before she flew in for the conference from Riyadh that Washington is looking at sending non-lethal support like communications gear and medical aid to an increasingly armed opposition.
Clinton warned Saturday that Assad risked backing out of his commitment to the Annan peace plan and said the U.S. focus in Istanbul will be to intensify the array of U.S., European, Canadian, Arab and Turkish sanctions on Syria, and to look at sending in more humanitarian aid, despite Syrian efforts to block it.
She also called for strengthening the unity of the opposition — including the Syrian National Council — and promoting their “democratic vision” as a viable alternative to the Assad regime.
Expectations are low for the conference having much impact on the Syrian crisis, as discord among the fragmented opposition and Friends of Syria group outweighs their agreements.
Asked about internal divisions among the opposition, Ghalioun said: “This is not the case; we are on the path to reunification… We are more unified than the international community, which has to live up to its responsibilities and close ranks.”
He said his group had “very positive contacts with conference participants, and we expect measures and positions that will make clear that the international community is losing patience with a regime that has killed and oppressed”.
“The regime will not be allowed to use the Annan mission to gain time. If it does not follow suit within a few days, we’ll go to the (U.N.) Security Council,” he warned.
Conference host Turkey, which has given refuge to more than 18,000 Syrians on its soil, will seek to raise pressure on Damascus to end the bloody repression, said a Turkish official on condition of anonymity.
The Istanbul gathering was preceded by an international chorus of calls for Assad to immediately set in motion the six-point peace plan which he accepted Tuesday.
“We expect him to implement this plan immediately,” a spokesman for Annan said.
Annan’s plan calls for an end to the violence, a daily two-hour humanitarian ceasefire and access to all areas affected by the fighting in Syria, as well as an inclusive Syrian-led political process, a right to demonstrate, and the release of people detained arbitrarily.
Annan is not attending the conference and Russia and China, Damascus’s two remaining major allies, have also opted out.