Bulgaria Joins First 'Friends of Syria' MeetingDiplomacy | February 24, 2012, Friday // 09:02| views
Bulgaria's Foreign Minister Nikolay Mladenov will be among the "Friends of Syria" at the group's first gathering. Photo by BGNES
Some 70 nations and international organizations, Bulgaria included, are holding Friday in Tunisia the first formal meeting of the self-styled "Friends of Syria" group.
The group will also bring together Syrian opponents of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The group, which was formed to address Syria's crisis outside the UN, is expected to hear Syrian opposition pleas for military aid - one the U.S. has shown no sign of entertaining, the WSJ reported.
Bulgaria will be represented at the first "Friends of Syria" gathering by Foreign Minister Nikolay Mladenov, who has been especially active on the Syrian crisis as well as with respect to the wider Arab region and providing democratization support to the nations that have already experienced the so called "Arab Spring" revolutions.
Russia and China, the major international powers that are still backing the Assad regime in Syria, will not take part in the "Friends of Syria" conference.
"We look forward to concrete progress on three fronts: providing humanitarian relief, increasing pressure on the regime, and preparing for a democratic transition," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters in London.
China joined Russia in refusing to attend the meeting, placing the budding coalition on a collision course with Assad's strongest remaining allies. The divide appeared to harden Thursday as the nations, both of which have blocked UN Security Council resolutions against Mr. Assad, rejected pressure to change course.
For the U.S., discussions on arming Syria's opposition didn't appear to be on the table. "What unifies this group tomorrow...is this desire for a political solution," a senior U.S. State Department official said.
But technical or military aid to the dissident Free Syrian Army topped the agenda of Syrian opposition figures, some 50 of which had gathered Thursday in Tunis, these people said.
The Syrian National Council, the leading group representing the opposition at the meeting with Arab and Western officials, has also outlined a specific humanitarian aid plan that involves "safe passages" through three neighboring countries to Syria. Representatives from the Local Coordination Committees and other grass-roots activist networks are also attending.
"The decision that Bashar al-Assad has to go has been made. The disagreements now revolve around the mechanism," said Walid al-Bunni, a Syrian opposition figure with the council, attending the meeting from his base in Cairo.
The Tunis gathering will be very loosely modeled on the so-called Libya Contact Group that coordinated international efforts to aid Libyan rebels fighting government forces. But diplomats and analysts concede Syria's opposition groups are much more fractured than the Libyan National Transitional Council that ousted Moammar Gadhafi.
A financial-support fund has been in the works, but Arab and Western backers have struggled to define where to direct the money with several competing opposition groups, people at the conference said. But the SNC, invited to attend and in turn invite other grass-roots activist groups, appears poised to gain some kind of recognition as a leading opposition group, at least to aid the logistics of providing aid.
The European Union is moving Monday to ban trade with Syria's central bank and to block the imports of Syrian gold and phosphates, according to European and U.S. officials. The EU is also considering banning Syrian firms from the global financial communications and clearing network, known as Swift.
In Homs, two journalists wounded in the attack that killed U.S.-born reporter Marie Colvin and French photojournalist R?mi Ochlik on Wednesday appealed for a medical evacuation. In separate videos filmed by Syrian activists and posted to YouTube, French journalist Edith Bouvier and U.K. photographer Paul Conroy said they were being looked after by local activists and doctors who lacked medical supplies.