A new chapter in the struggle for Syria opens on Friday with the meeting of some seventy foreign ministers and senior officials in Tunis. Having dabbled episodically with President Bashar al-Assad’s ruthless bloodshed against the Syrian people, the first meeting of the “Friends of Syria” signifies the solid placement of this issue at the top of the international agenda.
Until now, efforts to forge a united approach toward Syria have been sporadic and largely reliant on Middle East parties. Early on, Turkey attempted to broker a diplomatic solution without success. The Arab League took up the issue several times, suspending Damascus from the organization, imposing sanctions, and deploying monitors to Syria last November; when this effort failed to stop Assad’s killing, the Arab League proposed a presidential transfer of power, a comprehensive dialogue between Damascus and the opposition, and an end to the violence. But these efforts were rejected by Syria, and proposals to provide international backing for regional initiatives at the United Nations Security Council were thwarted by Russia and China.
Given cover by these two world powers along with Iran, the Assad regime has felt sufficiently insulated internationally from having to change course, despite the pain that sanctions have inflicted upon the country. And there has been pain: the EU has imposed an oil and arms embargo while the United States, Canada, and many other individual countries have banned transactions with Damascus and frozen government assets. The Syrian government is burning through its foreign currency reserves and will likely deplete them entirely in the next three to five months. But it is not clear that within Syria it is the regime that is feeling the pain most acutely from these punitive measures.
The “Friends of Syria” group now provides a new and critical forum for forging a consensus by an overwhelming majority of the international community on what needs to be done next in Syria. But the group is a forum, not a singular panacea. The problems bedeviling Syria cannot be resolved in one high-level meeting in Tunis. To be sure, there will doubtlessly be countless condemnations of Assad in Tunisia. But the meeting should be judged by two other important criteria:
- First, what will the Friends agree to do immediately to address Syrian suffering? Will the assembled leaders initiate or agree to forge an action plan? Will mechanisms to provide humanitarian assistance, with follow-up procedures, be established?
- Second, and perhaps more importantly, will the “Friends of Syria” agree to maintain a regularized, intensive, high-level engagement with the goal of ending the killing in Syria and promulgating a political process that will perforce require Bashar al-Assad to depart?
These efforts will require careful orchestration, sustained efforts, an effective division of labor, and high-level leadership. Key international actors, such as the United States and the European powers will need to ramp up their diplomacy with an eye toward bringing Russia off its heretofore rigid support for Assad. At the same time, the Western powers will need to start preparing the groundwork for backing their diplomatic carrots with increased sticks. This means that the policy, reiterated yet again last week by NATO secretary general Anders Rasmussen, rejecting force or assistance with UN-mandated humanitarian assistance, must be reversed. The region’s powers also have a key role to play, maintaining Assad’s isolation while working with Syria’s opposition to forge a positive vision for a peaceful and inclusive post-Assad Syria.
The Tunis meeting will serve as a hortatory expression of friendship toward the Syrian people. But only a commitment to a sustained, coordinated, high-level international effort will provide the kind of friendship that the people of Syria require to bring about an end to the horrors currently being inflicted upon them by Bashar al-Assad and his regime.