Last updated: February 24, 2012 9:48 pm

Arabs take lead in adding pressure on Assad

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Arabs took the lead on Friday in raising the pressure on Bashar al-Assad over his violent crackdown on opponents in Syria.

At an international conference in the Tunisian capital, Gulf Arab states pressed for strong action against the Assad regime, as delegates from dozens of nations, international organisations and Syrian opposition groups struggled to agree on a plan for political transition in the country and to get humanitarian aid to war-torn areas. Hamas, the Palestinian group, also turned against its Syrian backers, coming out in support of the protesters.

Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, Qatari foreign minister, tried, but failed, to get the forum to push for an Arab peacekeeping force to be sent to Syria to open humanitarian corridors and give safe passage to victims of warfare. Nabil Elaraby, the Arab League chief, said the UN Security Council should call for an immediate ceasefire in Syria. Moncef Marzouki, president of Tunisia urged Mr Assad, the Syrian president, to step aside in exchange for immunity for his alleged crimes.

Violence continued in Syria on Friday. Regime forces killed 36 people across the country, according to the London-based Syrian Human Rights Observatory. They included 22 in a village near the central city of Hama, as the relentless shelling of opposition neighbourhoods continued further south in Homs.

One activist in Beirut in touch with people on the ground in Homs said it had become too dangerous for people to move from one street to another in the besieged district of Bab Amr, making it hard to to verify how many people had been killed.

“There is no electricity, no water in Bab Amr, no internet, no food, no medicine,” said the activist, who said people were reduced to drinking boiled rain water.

Thousands of people across Syria demonstrated in solidarity with Bab Amr on Friday, according to activists.

Interactive map:
Syria uprising

Syria timeline

This map and timeline shows the focus points for dissent across Syria and the diplomatic and economic issues that have beset the regime as the violence has continued.

At one point during the meeting in Tunisia, the Saudi delegation stormed out, followed by Bourhan Ghalioun – head of the Syrian National Council, an umbrella opposition group – apparently upset that the courses of action being considered were not strong enough, in their minds to stop the violence, being perpetrated by Mr Assad. Both later returned to the meeting.

“They want a strong statement, a commitment to bring down the regime of Bashar Assad in any way possible,” said Bassam Ishak, a member of the SNC’s executive board.

“It’s really unprecedented how much the Arabs are doing especially if you consider how passive the Arab League was just a year ago,” one western diplomat said.

In the Gaza Strip Hamas, the militant group, publicly and decisively renounced its longtime Syrian ally, throwing in its lot with the Syrian revolution and depriving Mr Assad of a key Sunni supporter.

Hamas’s withdrawal of support for the Syrian regime will not affect its ability to crush it opponents but will further undermine Mr Assad’s claim to be a leader of Arab culture and politics.

The Tunisia conference strengthened international recognition of the SNC as a “legitimate representative” of the Syrian opposition, the leading external platform for the opposition to Assad and primary interlocutor to the Syrian revolution, though not its sole representative. It also adopted a previous Arab League plan for political transition.

More immediately the delegates endorsed a plan to establish UN humanitarian hubs along Syria’s borders to get aid to residents in war-torn areas of Syria.

The conference also vowed to keep up political, economic and diplomatic pressure on Syria and to “prevent the regime from generating instability in the region” by increasing travel bans and freezing its assets, ending purchases of Syrian oil, halting investments in the country and preventing arms shipments, according to the final statement.

One official said the UN was prepared to act within 48 hours to ferry relief supplies to Syrians. But a British official in Tunis said the conference mostly amounted to an “intensification” of efforts already under way to press Mr Assad to halt his attacks on opposition strongholds and abide by an Arab League plan to step down.

Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, told reporters that Russia and China “are setting themselves against the aspirations not only the Syrian people but the entire Arab spring. That is not a sustainable position.”

Mr Assad met a senior Russian politician in Damascus while China has accused western countries of stirring up civil war in Syria.

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