United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton unveiled a new plan of action against Syria's dictator President Bashar al-Assad at the "Friends of Syria" meeting between U.S., European, and Arab representatives in Tunisia February 24. The meeting came even as Assad ordered loyal forces to continue shelling Syrian rebels in the beleaguered city of Homs.
Still, Clinton expressed the frustration that all of the "friends" nations are feeling at the slow progress against Assad.
Assad began military action against insurgents in March 2011 as the democratic impulses of Arab Spring spread into Syria. To date, some 8,500 people have died in the violence.
In a February 2012 meeting of the United Nations Security Council, Russia and China vetoed an Arab League plan that would have called for Assad to turn over power to a successor. The veto left the Arab League, U.S., and other western nations seemingly powerless to oust Assad.
The Friends of Syria plan also seems impotent in the face of Assad's brutality.
Clinton's Friends of Syria Plan
Clinton outlined three areas of action against Assad. They include:
- Humanitarian relief
- Increased pressure on Assad
- Preparation for a "democratic transition" in Syria
Clinton announced that the U.S. is prepared to send $10 million to Syria to "quickly scale up humanitarian efforts." She said the money would help build medical facilities and train emergency personnel, provide clean water, food, shelter, and hygiene kits.
Clinton, however, acknowledged that getting such humanitarian aid into Syria will be problematic.
Pressure On Assad
The United States and European Union already have sanctions against Syria in an attempt to keep oil sales from funding Assad's violence. Clinton indicated that other pressure on Assad would have to come from inside. She said the Friends coalition hopes to strip internal support away from Assad.
"We have a lot of contacts, as do other countries, a lot of sources within the Syrian Government and the business community and the minority communities," Clinton told CNN. "And our very clear message is the same to all of them. You cannot continue to support this illegitimate regime, because it's going to fall, so be part of an opposition that can try to have a path forward that will protect the rights of all Syrians."
Clinton said that pressure on Assad includes "deepening" the isolation of his regime. That's difficult with support from Russia and China. Clinton condemned "those nations that continue to protect and arm the regime."
Preparation For Democratic Transition
When the U.S. and NATO intervened on behalf of Libyan rebels fighting Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, it did so with the coordination of the opposition Libyan National Council. Anti-Assad forces have formed a Syrian National Council, but Clinton said they are not as well-organized as the Libyan council.
Clinton said, however, that the Syrian National Council "is articulating a plan for the future, starting with an effective transition." She said a truly democratic Syria without Assad cannot exist without such preparation."
In the meantime, Assad's regime allowed a public referendum on Sunday, February 26, that would liberalize the government. Assad, who took power upon the death of his father Hafez al-Assad in 2000, rules through the Ba'ath party which enables him to control rival Islamic factions. (Saddam Hussein did much the same in Iraq.)
The referendum would allow multiple parties in the Syrian government, as well as place term limits on the presidency.
Most Syrian observers do not believe the referendum will lead to true reform, or that Assad will relinquish control.
Clinton and other western representatives have called the referendum a "sham."