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'Friends of Syria' group finds opposition from all sides to its work

TUNIS, Tunisia — The first meeting of the so-called "Friends of Syria" group concluded Friday, leaving neither Syrian opponents of President Bashar Assad nor his supporters satisfied.

Many Syrian activists criticized as more bluster than action the conference's final statement, which called for a peacekeeping mission, tougher economic sanctions and grudging recognition of the opposition Syrian National Council.

"The final statement doesn't call for any concrete action to stop the massacres in Syria," said Ashraf al Moqdad, a Syrian dissident who attended the Tunis gathering. "They are still talking about a political solution at a stage when everything has failed."

"We were expecting some hard decisions to make Bashar Assad feel if he continues killing people he will have some serious consequences," Moqdad said. "But unfortunately this has not happened."

Before the conference began, arriving dignitaries had to get past pro-Assad protesters who swarmed the grounds of the conference hotel shortly after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived, blocking the driveway and shouting slurs at Arab "agents" they said had allied with the West and Turkey to topple the Assad dynasty.

No official Syrian delegation attended. But to the Syrian opposition activists, the pro-Assad toughs were the regime's envoys and their message was clear: Assad isn't going without a fight, and he can mobilize spoilers even in other Arab countries.

"Outside, we have these guys who were paid to be here. Inside, we have the VIPs sipping coffee. And what about the Syrians? They're dying," said a visiting Syrian activist who gave his name only as Abdulaziz before the crowd broke through police cordons and he was forced to move to safety. Tunisian guards dispersed the mob within an hour.

At least, activists and delegates said, the gathering underscored just how isolated Assad has become because of his violent crackdown on a nearly year-old uprising against his family's four decades of authoritarian rule.

More than 60 countries sent delegates to the meeting, which featured speeches by Clinton and British Foreign Secretary William Hague, among others.

Assad's last real supporters are Iran, its closest partner, and Russia and China, which together vetoed two U.N. Security Council resolutions on Syria. None of those countries attended the meeting. Lebanon, home of the militant Hezbollah organization with close ties to Assad and Iran, also stayed away.

Clinton lashed out at the reluctance of Russia and China to sever ties with Assad's regime.

"It's quite distressing to see two permanent members of the Security Council using their veto while people are being murdered — women, children, brave young men. Houses are being destroyed," Clinton told a news conference at the event. "It is just despicable and I ask: Whose side are they on?"

But the statement that was released contained few new threats of action and declined to recognize the Syrian National Council opposition coalition as the interim alternative to Assad. Instead, delegates called the Syrian National Council "a" legitimate authority, suggesting that some states still aren't comfortable with an untested opposition — now backed by an armed wing — about which little is known.

"It's incumbent upon the Syrian National Council to talk about how they would translate that transition plan into action on the ground and for them to articulate it in a compelling way that's comprehensible, understandable to Syrians inside and out," a senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity as per diplomatic protocol, told reporters on the eve of the conference.

The most sought-after action — agreement, or at least serious talk, on arming the Free Syrian Army, the loose group of armed groups battling Assad's forces — appeared to be off the table at the "Friends" summit. While the issue surely arose in side talks, there was no mention in the final statement of sending arms or military trainers as requested by a growing number of opposition forces.

"We must have military intervention. It's the only way to truly get rid of this regime, and quickly," said Jaloul Karim, a Switzerland-based opposition activist who flew to Tunis for the conference. "A political solution will just take too much time. How many more people have to be massacred, how many villages lost?"

After the lackluster response from the West, Karim added, he was now looking to "our brothers in the Gulf" to bail out the ragtag rebels. Qatar, the rising regional powerhouse, has suggested sending weapons to the Free Syrian Army, as it did in the Libyan revolt against Moammar Gadhafi.

"We must bring down this regime," Karim said, "by any means necessary."

(McClatchy special correspondent Ipek Yezdani contributed from Istanbul, Turkey.)


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