As World Leaders Talk, 'Time Is Running Out' in Syria
Following some of the bloodiest days of the Syrian conflict, representatives of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council - China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States - along with Turkey, Kuwait, and Qatar, reached an agreement during a conference in Geneva that a transitional government should be set up in Syria, but the question of whether President Bashar al-Assad will step down was left undecided.
The crisis talks were called by the Arab League and UN special envoy Kofi Annan, who told the press in his concluding remarks: "It is for the people to come to a political agreement but time is running out."
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said after the meeting that the Syria plan agreed to by the major powers "paves the way for a post-Assad" government. She said Syrian President Bashar Assad "will still have to go, he will never pass the mutual consent test given the blood on his hands."
"It is now incumbent on Russia and China to show Assad the writing on the wall," Clinton said.
Opposition leaders and human rights groups, however, expressed skepticism that the new agreement would yield any resolution to the increasingly bloody conflict.
"We saw for more than two months Annan's plan didn't achieve any goals. I don't think there is clear international agreement about Syria," said Khalaf Dahowd, head of the so-called "exiled" faction of the National Coordinating Body, an umbrella group of Syrian opposition parties, mostly based within the country.
Dahowd is a Kurdish Syrian politician who was granted asylum in the UK six years ago, after he was persecuted by the Assad regime for opposition activity.
"I don't think Assad will step down, " he said. "And you can't only take the issue to a place like the UN Security Council; it's like a theater, Russia and China can just keep the veto."
The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement Friday calling for new cease-fire mechanisms and the synchronized withdrawal of all armed combatants from Syria's battle zones. Russia has opposed any proposal that would impose a political solution on the Syrians from the outside.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Friday night in St. Petersburg. According to a senior State Department official, they agreed that "we should all go to Geneva to try to produce a result. We may get there, we may not." As crisis talks continue, Russia remains unwilling to back a provision that would call for Assad to step down to make way for a unity government.
"The way things have been going thus far - we are not helping anyone," Annan said, according to The Associated Press. "Let us break this trend and start being of some use."
Opposition activists like Dahowd said they believe Assad should step down, but agree that that cannot happen without Russia's backing.
"Russia needs to change her direction" Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the London-based Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, told ABC News. "If Syria stays like this for a few months, they will destroy Syria, and invite Islamic fundamentalism."
Rahman said he wasn't too hopeful about the outcome of today's talks.
"The international community, they don't really do anything serious to stop clashes," he said. "Yesterday was the worst day in recent months, more than 200 people killed in Syria."
Amnesty International's Senior Crisis Adviser Donatella Rovera called today's talks "just a meeting," saying that "there have been many before, and there will be many after."
Rovera recently returned to the UK, where Amnesty International headquarters are located, after a five-week trip to Syria to investigate human rights abuses and war crimes.
"It's certainly been a failure of the international community to act early on," she said. "The only discussions have been about 'Should the government go or should there be a military intervention?' They've really failed to look at other options that could have brought relief and protection to the civilian population."
Apart from a day with one of the highest death tolls recorded in Syrian conflict, this week's atrocities, including the alleged stabbing by government militia of a family of 20 in in the town of Douma, highlighted the escalation of violence on the ground and its effect on the civilian population.
"In Libya, it took a month for the case to be pushed to the International Criminal Court," Rovera said. "In Syria, 15 months have gone by, and there is no reason why there should be such little a interest from the international community about the plight of those who are most vulnerable in this conflict."
An activist in Homs told ABC that the situation in Syria is getting worse: "The countries of the world plays the game wasting time and these meetings are just not play in front of people."
Last Thursday, state television reported that rebel forces attacked Syria's main court in central Damascus. The reported increase in the availability of arms for rebel forces has intensified the risk of violence, including sectarian conflict.
In an op-ed article, British journalist Robert Fisk wrote that: "Information from Syria suggests that Assad's army is now "taking a beating" from armed rebels … at least 6,000 soldiers are now believed to have been murdered or killed in action." He added, "There are even unconfirmed reports that, during any one week, up to a thousand Syrian fighters are under training by mercenaries in Jordan."
"The armed uprising and the response of the regime to that uprising does have sectarian elements, which will only get worse over time, but the situation is still defined as being an armed rising against a regime, not simply a war between several sects in Syria," said John Chalcraft, a Middle East expert and Reader at the London School of Economics.
A video released today by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, reportedly showing a Syrian colonel and his son announcing their defection from the Syrian armed forces, suggests an increasingly polarized conflict between the Assad regime and opposition groups.
Chalcraft added that the danger of escalating violence was not limited to sectarian threats.
"I hope that neither the United States nor Britain will start to think that they can solve the situation - which is a complex and political situation on the ground by the use of US or NATO or British troops, which I think will only complicate the situation," he said.
"I think it's a move to see whether something can be done on the diplomatic track," he said of the meeting today.
Recent trouble between Turkey and Syria has aggravated the already tense diplomatic relations between international powers and the Assad regime.
As rebels attacked the main Court in Damascus on Thursday, Turkey deployed troops and anti-aircraft rocket launchers to the Syrian border, building pressure on the Assad regime.
Turkey's Ambassador to the UK Unal Cevikoz told ABC News that Turkey "does not have a problem with the Syrian people," but that since the beginning of the year, "Syrian aircraft violated international airspace agreements." Just over a week ago, Syria shot down a Turkish warplane over the Mediterranean.
"What has happened is beyond international norms and this is now a new situation," Cevikoz said. "From now on, the Syrian military approaching the Turkish border should be very careful."
He added that today's meeting was "very important" and that continuing violence was "intolerable."
"We have to show that it is now time to stop and establish a transitional government of unity," he said.
The question of unity, and moving forward as a united front, was at the forefront of concerns for both political players and opposition activists like Dahowd as today's meeting in Geneva unfolded.
"Anyone interested in Syria's issue, they should commit to Annan's plan, whatever comes next," Dahowd said.