The Friends of Syria conference, which took place in Tunisia on February 24, was a disaster. Neither the Syrian street nor the Syrian opposition — both at home and in the diaspora — were satisfied with its outcome. Naturally, nor were major stakeholders in the Syrian crisis, like Russia and China. For starters, the Syrian opposition was poorly represented at the conference.
Apart from being a Kodak moment for leaders like US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and British Foreign Secretary William Hague, the conference failed to provide a roadmap for the Syrian crisis; ease the suffering of the Syrian people and bring the country even a step closer to democracy. It also failed to achieve regime change as the opposition has been demanding.
It came across as a feeble attempt by world leaders to answer to the growing pressure inside Europe and the US, to take serious action over Syria after efforts were torpedoed at the UN twice — thanks to a double veto by Russia and China — in October 2011 and in January.
Media coverage of Syria has been remarkable, even on local channels in cities like Copenhagen and Prague, for example. The European street is furious with the violence in Syria and is pressuring its governments to do something respectable and serious about it. This is very different from the mood with Libya in 2011, or even Iraq in 2003, when world leaders were enthusiastic about going to war, but ordinary Europeans and Americans were not.
Opposition groups inside Syria, namely the Coordination Committee of Hassan Abdul Azeem and Haitham Mana’a, were furious at being ‘passed over’ at the conference. Although representing a broad coalition of Arab nationalists, secularists and Kurds in the Syrian opposition, they were not invited to attend.
Despite being accused of being too soft in his opposition, Azeem is very influential in the vicinity of Damascus, for example, where anti-regime demonstrations have taken place in hotspots like Douma and Harasta, almost non-stop for 11-months now.
Adding insult to injury, his main contender in the opposition, chairman of the exiled Syrian National Council (SNC) Burhan Galioun was invited to attend, and received on the sidelines of the conference by Clinton. The SNC, after all, is not the only opposition group in Syria, say many domestic opposition groups.
Despite that, SNC leaders were also angry with the conference, because it recognised them as a ‘legitimate representative’ of the Syrian opposition, rather than ‘a representative of the Syrian people’ or as many had wanted ‘the sole representative of the Syrian people’.
The SNC was also furious with the fact that Galioun’s speech was not among those broadcasted to the public, and by Tunisian President Munsif Al Marzouqi’s speech, which completely ruled out a military option for Syria, which is what the SNC had been demanding in recent days. This prompted SNC spokesman Bassam Jara’a to come out on Al Arabiya and accuse Tunisia of coordinating its position with Syrian officialdom, speaking of it being a “friends of Bashar Al Assad conference”.
Rather than bridge the gap in the already fragmented Syrian opposition, the conference only sharpened differences between the SNC and the Coordination Committees, which further demoralised the Syrian street that was expecting them — at a minimum — to unify their efforts.
At a grassroots level, angry local leaders in rebellious cities like Homs, Hama and Idlib were expecting the conference to issue an ultimatum to the Syrian regime, asking it to stop the violence and step aside or get bombed by the Friends of Syria coalition.
That is the mood that snowballed in hotspots throughout Syria prior to the conference, where many believed — wishful thinking perhaps — that the conference would present the Syrian state with an ultimatum similar to the one presented to Saddam Hussain after the 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
Many Syrian rebels, no doubt, expected the Friends of Syria coalition to go ahead with a military strike, regardless of the UN or Russia. The recent UN General Assembly Resolution would have provided a legal groundwork for such an attack, based on a similar 1950 General Assembly Resolution 377A, which bypassed a Soviet Union veto at the Security Council, allowing world leaders to intervene in the Korean War, through the General Assembly.
That of course, did not happen in Syria’s case, although Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Saud Al Faisal had been pushing for such an action. When it failed to materialise, the Saudi minister walked-out on the Conference, accusing it of being too soft on the Syrian regime. He said that the conference had failed to live up to the aspirations of Syrians, claiming that arming the Syrian opposition was an ‘excellent idea’ and added that the Syrian regime had to go ‘either voluntarily or forcibly’.
What the conference eventually did was pledge $10 million (Dh36.7 million) in humanitarian aid to the people of Syria, which infuriated opposition figures like Farah Atasi, for example, who commented that this was embarrassment for world powers because Syrian people are not asking for medical centres, blankets and medicine.
Syria after all is neither Darfur nor Rwanda, pleading for humanitarian aid from the international community. Rather, the Syria democracy seekers who were expecting the world powers assembled at the Friends of Syria gathering to help them achieve that.
The conference also pledged to strengthen pressure on the Syrian government, add to its diplomatic isolation, and to impose more Arab and EU sanctions. Nothing new, of course, in any of that. An impossible peacekeeping mission was also proposed, in complete disregard to the fact that such a mission needs a clear UN mandate, and needs acceptance of the Syrian government.
The conference also supported the appointing of former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan as a joint envoy to Syria, by both the UN and the Arab League. Annan, whose nomination was backed by Russia and will likely be welcomed by Syrian officialdom, will not have a mandate at finding a solution for Syria, nor will he be allowed to discuss regime change — but only humanitarian aid.
Looking back, we can see that the Tunis meeting did not address demands for regime change — as many expected — and sought the minimum: allowing the Red Cross and humanitarian aid to enter war-torn areas like Homs and the embattled Baba Amr neighbourhood.
Syrian officialdom, of course, gloated at the thundering failure, to an extent that it broadcasted the Friends of Syria meeting live on Syrian TV, treating it more like a comedy event, than a threat to the Syrian regime.
Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Damascus, Syria.