Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks during a press conference at a conference on Syria in Tunis, Tunisia, on Friday. The participants were united in their calls for a ceasefire and for Syrian President Bashar Assad to allow humanitarian aid into his country.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks during a press conference at a conference on Syria in Tunis, Tunisia, on Friday. The participants were united in their calls for a ceasefire and for Syrian President Bashar Assad to allow humanitarian aid into his country. EPA /Landov
Syrians are looking to the world in their hour of need and "we cannot let them down," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Friday at an international conference on Syria held in Tunisia.
The dozens of countries represented at the conference, Clinton said, are united in their demands: Syrian President Bashar Assad must allow much-needed aid to his people and silence his guns or face more isolation and pressure.
But debate continues over what other steps countries in the region could take.
At the conference, which ended Friday, Clinton announced $10 million in U.S. humanitarian aid for Syrians and promised more to come. She also had more tough words for Assad and a message for those supporting him.
"Their continuing to kill their brothers and sisters is a stain on their honor. Their refusal to continue this slaughter will make them heroes in the eyes of not only Syrians but people of conscience everywhere," Clinton said. "They can help the guns fall silent."
She says there are signs that people around Assad are hedging their bets. Many of them, she says, did not sign up to slaughter people.
The Tunisian gathering — of the group known as Friends of Syria — was meant in part to send signals to those surrounding Assad to defect and to countries like Russia and China to stop giving the Syrian leader diplomatic cover.
"It is just despicable. And I ask, whose side are they on? They are clearly not on the side of the Syrian people," Clinton said. "And they need to ask themselves some very hard questions about what that means for them, as well as the rest of us."
What The Opposition Needs
Syria's largest opposition group, the Syrian National Council — which Clinton calls a legitimate voice for Syrians — came to the conference in Tunisia to lay out its vision of a post-Assad Syria.
Kamal al-Labwani, who spent 10 years as a political prisoner in Syria and now lives in exile, is a member of the group. He says its plan is to form an inclusive government.
"We speak about a new history for all the territory [of the] Middle East," he says. "This revolution is promising to change everything."
The opposition needs all the help it can get, Labwani adds. While the talk in Tunisia was formally about humanitarian aid, he says the idea of arming the opposition was the talk of the corridors.
"On the table, we speak about peaceful support. But under the table, we always asked something different," he says. "If you want to be active, you have to close your eyes about smuggling weapons to Syria. You have to give the green light to the states surrounding Syria to let the smugglers take weapons inside Syria. What we need is this."
The host of the meeting — Tunisia's foreign minister — says shipping in arms is risky. But Saudi Arabia's foreign minister called it an excellent idea. Clinton remained focused on the consensus issue — that Assad needs to allow in aid – and said no one wants a prolonged conflict.
But activists say there needs to be safe corridors so people can flee and aid can get in. Stephanie Brancaforte is an activist with an organization called Avaaz, which has been working with citizen journalists in Syria and trying to help bring in supplies.
"The real test for this conference is when bombs stop falling, and the ambulances and the humanitarian aid start arriving in the besieged cities," Brancaforte says.
For now, she says, she hears only troubling news.
"It's an absolutely desperate situation," she says. "Families can't flee. When they do, they're shot by snipers. And children are being killed, children are having to bury their parents."