A meeting of a new international contact group on Syria has been scheduled under the title “Friends of Syria” conference, while as international pressure mounted to provide military aid to opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The "Friends of Syria" conference will gather top diplomats from the Arab League, Europe and the United States, but will be marked by the absence of Russia, which denounced the meeting as one-sided and refused to attend.
China, which has joined Russia in vetoing UN Security Council resolutions on Syria, has also refused to commit itself to attend.
Representatives from the Syrian National Council (SNC) and other opposition groups will be at the meeting and are expected to come under pressure to work for the creation of a united group to represent opponents of the regime.
The preparations for the ‘Friends of Syria’ conference are still underway. The conference, backed by foreign powers and the Arab League, aims to end the violence in Syria. The meeting in Tunisia on February 24, is also expected to be divided over whether and how much to support an armed opposition.
Members of the so-called Friends of Syria group—including foreign ministers from the U.S., France, U.K., and European Union—are set to meet for the first time on Friday in Tunis.
The U.S. has described the Friends of Syria group as a route around the U.N. to pressure the Assad regime that will discuss sanctions, humanitarian support and support for a democratic transition in Syria.
One sticking point ahead of the meeting is whether the group will leave the door open to Russia and China, analysts said. It isn't clear whether either nation has been invited to join. On Friday, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said China hadn't received an invitation.
Complicating matters is the fact Russia and China have indicated they may not attend the Friends of Syria meeting. The division between these two permanent UN Security Council members — who have refused to approve any international intervention in Syria — and the West appears to be increasing and their absence will negatively affect the chances a real solution to the crisis in Syria can be achieved.
Arab League chief Nabil el-Araby said Monday there were signs that China and Russia could be shifting their stance on Syria, calling the Tunis meeting a way to "put extra pressure on Syria," Reuters reported.
Russia and Lebanon announced that they will not be participating in the conference; Russia considered the goals of the conference to be vague.
Alexander Lukashevich, a spokesperson for Russia’s foreign ministry, said on February 21 that Moscow’s representatives would not attend the conference because all parties involved in the conflict will not be present – a reference to the fact that the Syrian government would not be represented.
Lebanese Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour assured Tuesday that Lebanon will commit to its decision to disassociate itself from the developments in Syria and from all the Arab decisions against the neighboring country, and will not attend the “Friends of Syria” conference in Tunisia.
In a statement on Tuesday, Mansour stressed that “in accordance with our disassociation policy, we will not attend the Friends of Syria conference on the 24th of this month.”
Mansour indicated that he received an invitation from his Tunisian counterpart Rafiq Abdul Salam, and stated that “our decision not to interfere in the Syrian internal affairs is clear”.
Moreover, the Lebanese Foreign Minister invited “those who want to interfere in Syria to state what they really want from it,” emphasizing that the disassociation policy is Lebanon’s policy and not his own, and that it achieves Lebanon’s higher interest.
Canada announced officially that Canadian Foreign Minister will jet to Tunis to attend Friday’s Friends of Syria meeting, which will be attended by high-level officials, international organizations and Syrian opposition movements.
Canada had been in the vanguard of these meetings when they were still getting off the ground and building legitimacy, with Canadian Ambassador to Tunisia Glenn Davidson reportedly making a big splash at a previous such conference in December.
Bulgarian Foreign Minister Nikolai Mladenov is also to attend the February 24 2012 meeting in Tunisia of the "Friends of Syria" group of representatives of about 70 countries opposed to the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, according to Sofia-echo report on Wednesday.
In Tunis, Arab and Western states are expected to focus on ways to provide emergency humanitarian aid into Syria, starting with Homs. The inclusion of those parties could determine, to a large degree, whether the group comes down on the side of providing military aid to Syria's rebels.
France has pushed for the U.N. Security Council to support its plan for "humanitarian corridors" into Syria, from bordering Turkey, Lebanon, or Jordan.
US secretary of state Hillary Clinton says there are a range of options under consideration, VOA said.
"We will strengthen our targeted sanctions; bring the international community together in condemnation of the actions of the Assad regime. We will increase our outreach to opposition both inside and outside of Syria," Clinton said.
In turn, Victoria Nuland, spokesperson for the United States state department, said on February 21 that the best outcome for Syria would be a political solution, but that if al-Assad refuses to yield to diplomatic pressure, "we may have to consider additional measures".