Bashar Assad must put an end to the killings in Syria, step down, and pave the way for a new government in Damascus, French President Francois Hollande said Friday at the opening of a meeting of Western delegations in Paris.
The so-called Friends of Syria conference is aimed at bolstering Syrian resistance and pressing Syria’s allies to discuss transition strategies for the embattled country after 16 months of brutal crackdowns and civil war.
The situation in Syria “is a threat for international peace and security,” Hollande said. “Bashar Assad must leave. A transitional government should be formed. It’s in everyone’s interest.” He urged “real and effective” sanctions and called on all participants in the conference to pledge support for democratic opposition and organize effective humanitarian aid.
The United States and its European partners have been threatening new sanctions on Assad’s regime if he doesn’t act fast on a new peace plan, but the fractured and frustrated Syrian opposition is seeking quick military actions instead.
Hassan Hashimi, the general secretary of the opposition Syrian National Council, said the international community was still moving too slowly.
Going into Friday’s meeting, he said he hoped to see a “tough stand” by diplomats, and a no-fly zone to prevent military forces “flying over defected soldiers and civilians and bombarding them.”
But military intervention is not on the immediate horizon. US officials say they are focusing on economic pressure, and the Obama administration says it won’t intervene militarily or provide weapons to the Syrian rebels for what it considers to be an already too-militarized conflict.
And Russia, a key Syrian ally, isn’t taking part in Friday’s conference.
A UN resolution could be introduced next week, according to American officials who previewed Friday’s gathering in Paris on condition of anonymity. But with neither Moscow nor Beijing in attendance, much will remain dependent on persuading the two reluctant powers to pressure Assad into action.
The objections of Russia and China also effectively watered down Annan’s blueprint for transition at a conference in Geneva last weekend. It grants Assad an effective veto over any interim government candidate he opposes. The opposition would gain the same power.
Also on Friday, a Western confirmed that a member of Assad’s inner circle had defected to the West. Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlas was a member of the elite Republican Guards and a son of a former defense minister. The official wasn’t authorized to divulge the information and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Tlas’s whereabouts are unclear, although the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and other opposition websites claimed he had fled to Turkey.
Activists say more than 14,000 people have been killed since the revolt began.