‘Friends of Syria’ coalition to become a reality

The Arab League is likely to launch a “Friends of Syria” coalition and appoint a special envoy to the strife-torn country at a meeting this weekend, a Western diplomat said on Friday.

The diplomat also said that Iranians were “on the ground”, giving technical help to Syrian intelligence services, and warned that President Bashar al-Assad’s regime had yet to use “many levels of violence”.

Syrian opposition leaders meanwhile said they expected several Gulf states to follow Libya in granting them diplomatic recognition at the expense of the Damascus regime.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, the diplomat said that at an Arab League meeting due on Sunday “it looks like they’re preparing to appoint a special envoy. We encourage that and look forward to working with whoever they nominate.

“It looks like there may be a proposal for a Friends of Syria group or some such group to be decided on by the Arab League.”

In Paris, French foreign ministry spokesperson Bernard Valero confirmed the reports.

“Consultation work is ongoing,” he said. “Ideas are circulating. We are working on plans to create a Friends of Syria group.”

‘Intensify pressure’
French President Nicolas Sarkozy proposed creating such a group after Moscow and China last weekend vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning the crackdown on anti-regime protests.

In Washington, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said his country was also open to the proposal, adding that he would discuss the issue with United States Secretary Hillary Clinton on Monday.

The Western diplomat said the aim of the group would be to “intensify the pressure on the regime, to demonstrate international support for the Arab League’s plan, and to intensify engagement with the Syrian opposition”.

Members of the Syrian National Council (SNC), the main opposition group in the current conflict, said they expected to win further recognition days after Libya expelled Damascus diplomats and recognised the SNC.

“There should be official recognition fo the SNC by several Gulf countries,” spokesperson Imad Houssair told AFP.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has meanwhile proposed a joint Arab League-United Nations observer mission, after the Arab League suspended its own observer group on January 28.

But the diplomat ruled out military action or arming the Syrian opposition.

‘Extreme challenges’
“What we want to do is not to make the fighting worse but to shift the arena back to political action,” the diplomat said.

“That brings you back to recommitting our support for the Arab League plan, if there’s a special envoy appointed this weekend engaging with that person, getting behind the Friends of Syria group if it is launched.”

The diplomat also played down suggestions that the international community could create a humanitarian corridor or no-fly zone, perhaps with Turkey’s help, saying there were “extreme challenges”.

Assad’s regime still had the “un-coerced support of 20 to 25% of the people”, the diplomat said.

And while there was no credible evidence of Iranian troops on Syrian soil, the diplomat said: “What we do see is quite a lot of Iranian technical support to the Syrian intelligence services. They’ve been getting quite a lot of practical support and advice.

“There are certainly Iranians on the ground in the country. But if by ‘on the ground’ you mean ‘are there Iranian officers or troops in Homs or wherever’, no… I haven’t seen any credible reports about that.”

The Turkish government has said it is trying to organise an international conference that seeks a peaceful settlement of the Syrian crisis.

“Now we need to revitalise a new international initiative,” Davutoglu said.

“We hope that with such a strong message those who are supporting Bashar al-Assad or [the] regime at this moment, they will have to make a reassessment,” he said, alluding to Russia and China. — AFP

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