The assembled dignitaries were under pressure from Syrians, including the National Council (SNC) represented at the conference, activists and, indeed, the media, given some of the questions directed to the Tunisian Foreign Minister and Secretary Clinton at the end of the day: pressure to do something now to make the killing stop. Arab League and UNGA support weigh on the side of what seems to be majority public opinion on this. On the other side are the Russian and Chinese vetoes, and caution about western imperialism (driven in part by assessments that NATO stretched its mandate in Libya).
What to do?
In the news conference, we were told that the question of arming the rebels had not been discussed. This may be true in the sense that it was not part of the official agenda. But we can be sure that private conversations between the most involved powers are indeed taking place on that subject. Many may be resigned already to some form of direct military intervention, probably under an Arab League banner or joint AL/UN branding, with Turkish and other NATO support as necessary. But getting from here to there is not straightforward, for reasons mentioned above, and no doubt all concerned would indeed prefer to see a political solution as called for in the chairman’s statement.
So we have a process.
Processes have a bad name due to the farce that the ‘Middle East Peace Process’ became after the death of Rabin. But they can be diplomatically and politically necessary. Along with attempts to set up machinery for immediate humanitarian relief, the commitment to follow up conferences in Istanbul, Paris and possibly a fourth venue is, I think, more significant than it sounds.
Why? Because it can get us from here to there. A series of meetings, which will review progress by Kofi Annan on the political front as well as the Assad regime’s actions – Clinton said the Friends would be “constantly evaluating what is happening inside Syria” – will either mark movement toward a peaceful outcome of democratic transition or, more likely alas, show that with the best efforts and intentions, the Friends are unable to bring Assad around to such an outcome. Clinton feared that “there will be more killing before he finally goes” as do, I suspect, most observers.
Following such a process will both strengthen the resolve of those Friends who are at the moment disinclined to pursue any military option, and increase pressure on China and Russia to reassess the cost of their support for the present regime. Tunisia’s Foreign Minister Rafik Abdessalem told journalists he hoped that Russia and China would change their position. I think the planned series of conferences and constant evaluation are designed in some significant part to achieve precisely that.
This is all politically necessary. The cost will be measured in many more deaths and ruined lives in Syria.