Sunday, February 25, 2018

'Friends of Syria' vow support for opposition

TUNIS, Tunisia — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton blasted Russia and China as "despicable" for opposing U.N. action aimed at stopping the bloodshed in Syria, and more than 60 nations began planning a civilian peacekeeping mission to deploy after the Damascus regime halts its crackdown on the opposition.

In his most forceful words to date on the Syrian crisis, President Barack Obama said the United States and its allies would use "every tool available" to end the bloodshed by the government of President Bashar Assad.

Obama spoke as a group known as the Friends of Syria, led by the United States and European and Arab nations, met in Tunisia in the latest effort to halt the Assad regime's nearly year-old suppression of an antigovernment uprising.

While the Tunisia conference offered nothing other than the threat of increasing isolation and sanctions to compel compliance from Assad, Clinton went on to predict a military coup inside Syria of the kind that ended the old regimes in Egypt and Tunisia.

"We saw this happen in other settings last year, I think it is going to happen in Syria," she told reporters at the end of the meeting. "We also know from many sources that there are people around Assad who are beginning to hedge their bets — they didn't sign up to slaughter people."

Assad allies Russia and China, which blocked U.N. action on Syria and are eager to head off any repeat of the kind of foreign intervention that happened in Libya, gave no sign they would agree to peacekeepers. Moscow and Beijing have vetoed U.N. Security Council resolutions backing Arab League plans aimed at ending the conflict and condemning Assad's crackdown.

Their vetoes prompted a strong reaction from Clinton.

"It's quite distressing to see two permanent members of the Security Council using their veto while people are being murdered — women, children, brave young men — houses are being destroyed," she said. "It is just despicable and I ask whose side are they on? They are clearly not on the side of the Syrian people."

The conference, meeting for the first time as a unified bloc, called on Assad to end the violence immediately and allow humanitarian aid into areas hit by his regime's crackdown. The group pledged to boost relief shipments and set up supply depots along Syria's borders, but it was unclear how it would be distributed without government approval.

Despite the show of unity, which diplomats said they hoped would impress upon Assad that the end of his family's four-decade autocratic rule is inevitable and at hand, there were signs of division. Some nations argued for arming Assad's foes, while others called for the creation of protected humanitarian corridors to deliver aid.

Syrian government troops kept up the shelling of rebel-held neighborhoods in the besieged central city of Homs, while thousands of people in dozens of towns staged antiregime protests. Activists said at least 50 people were killed nationwide Friday.

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