5 Baby Steps From Syria’s Neighborhood Watch

President Bashar al-Assad and ‘Friends of Syria’ adopt a no-pals pact.

Pro Assad demonstrators show support for Syria's dictator outside the Friends of Syria conference.

Supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad form an unfriendly Syrian mass outside the "Friends of Syria" conference in Istanbul. (Photo: Emre Tazegul/Reuters)

Allan MacDonell is TakePart’s News + Opinion editor, with a focus on social justice.

Over the weekend, an international coalition of nearly 80 countries including the United States and the United Kingdom (but excluding China and Russia) and several Arab states (notable exceptions Iran and Iraq) met in Istanbul, Turkey (a country adjacent to Syria). The topic of the forum: What can we do to end a conflict like Syria’s?

The sundry collection of nations agreed to dub itself the Friends of the Syrian People. As such, it called on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to immediately honor his promise to adhere to a United Nations-Arab League peace plan.

The peace proposal calls for six points of acquiescence from the Assad regime:

  • Assad must commit to a timetable to stop all armed violence.
  • Assad must institute a daily two-hour humanitarian ceasefire.
  • Assad must provide media access to all areas affected by the fighting.
  • Assad must allow an inclusive Syrian political process.
  • Assad must grant opposition movements a right to demonstrate.
  • Assad must empty Syria’s prisons of all arbitrarily detained people.

Tuesday’s stepped up shelling by Syrian troops on two northern cities clarifies that instantly begin means “in a day or so, or maybe a bit longer, up to and including until never.”

The plan, pushed by former Secretary General of the United Nations Kofi Annan, is straightforward, logical and perhaps a flight of fantasy. Anyone vaguely aware of Assad’s year-long internal slaughter was skeptical when Syria announced that it agreed to instantly begin (how soon is that?) halting the use of heavy weapons in residential neighborhoods, and to pull its forces out of population centers by April 10.

Tuesday’s stepped up shelling by Syrian troops on two northern cities clarifies that instantly begin means “in a day or so, or maybe a bit longer, up to and including until never.”

The Friends of Syria, which might more accurately call itself the Enemies of Assad, is far more skeptical than the casual observer of Assad’s ready acceptance of peace terms. Its skepticism is expressed in a cascade of proclamations and positions that presume, and to some extent ensure, that hostilities will be ongoing. The difference going forward is that the anti-Assad insurgents will be better prepared to fight back.

Below, five whys and wherefores of Friends of Syria’s neighborhood watch.

1) Arab Persian Gulf states have banded to pool several million dollars each month to pay “salaries” to Syria’s opposition fighters. The payments are viewed as cash incentives to entice defections from Assad’s troops. The Free Syria Army will certainly be tempted to funnel off a portion of any influx of funds to purchase weapons.

2) Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pledged $12.2 million in humanitarian and technological aid to Syria, to include “communications equipment” to “help activists organize, evade attacks by the regime, and connect to the outside world.”

3) Friends of Syria delegates recognized the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) as the “legitimate representative” of all Syrians. This recognition is less than unanimous within the borders of Syria. According to the Washington Post, rebel fighters in the Free Syrian Army and Syrian ethnic and religious minorities—including Shiites, Christians and Kurds—are leery of the SNC’s dominance by Syria’s Sunni majority and the Syrian National Brotherhood.

4) The Syrian National Congress plans to win over the Free Syrian Army by seizing its purse strings. Burhan Ghalioun, the SNC head, suggested to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait (the countries providing the salary fund) that “the SNC will take charge of the payment of fixed salaries of all officers, soldiers and others who are members of the Free Syrian Army.” Ghalioun’s offer was presented to the world press as an indication of increased cooperation among Syrain factions opposing Assad. The Free Syrian Army, however, may view the SNC’s grip on Army funds as one more incentive to mistrust.

5) The rebels’ primary interest is in obtaining weaponry adequate to respond to the regime’s artillery and airpower. The United Nations estimates that 9,000 people have been killed in suppressive violence in the past year. Syrian rights groups believe the toll is 10,000 or higher. At either number, the Syrian resistance is obviously deeply invested in toppling Assad. Al Jazeera quotes Mohammed al-Said, identified as a Syrian activist near Damascus, encapsulating the need for weapons: “What is clear to us is that only fighting can make this regime leave.”

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