"Friends of Syria" to demand ceasefire

TUNIS (Reuters) - Western and Arab nations meeting on Friday will demand that Syria implement an immediate ceasefire to allow aid in for desperate civilians in the absence of an international consensus on intervention to end a crackdown on an 11-month-old revolt.
Foreign ministers from more than 50 countries will attend the first meeting of the "Friends of Syria" group in Tunis, amid a surge in government attacks on the city of Homs and mounting world outrage over violence that has claimed thousands of lives during the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad's rule.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Thursday Syria's opposition would ultimately arm itself and go on the offensive if diplomacy failed to resolve the crisis.
But with moves for tough action in the U.N. Security Council stymied by Russian and Chinese vetoes and a lack of appetite for military action to end Assad's crackdown, delegates are expected to focus on finding ways to ferry medicine and food to stranded civilians and to evacuate casualties stuck in the fighting.
A draft declaration from the meeting, obtained by Reuters on Thursday, called on Syria to implement an immediate ceasefire to allow the United Nations access to Homs, and to let agencies deliver aid to civilians affected by the violence.
U.N. humanitarian envoy Valerie Amos was expected to attend the meeting, along with representatives from the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC), which is already working with the Syrian authorities and opposition to arrange daily ceasefires to allow in humanitarian aid.
In a sign the international community is seeking ways around the Security Council deadlock, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said he would dispatch former U.N. chief Kofi Annan to Syria as a joint U.N.-Arab League envoy.
Addressing her comments directly to Russia and China, Clinton told reporters in London: "The strategy followed by the Syrians and their allies is one that can't stand the test of legitimacy or even brutality for any length of time.
"There will be increasingly capable opposition forces. They will from somewhere, somehow, find the means to defend themselves as well as begin offensive measures."
Asked about the possibility of military action to try to end the bloodshed, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said France could not act without Security Council backing.
"Our priority is to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance," he told reporters in London. "We want also tomorrow to reaffirm the unity of the international community to exert maximum pressure on the regime ... There is no military option at the moment on the table."
Those views were echoed in the draft communique, which did not mention any foreign military intervention along the lines of the NATO bombing campaign that helped force out Libya's Muammar Gaddafi.
Instead, it called for a ratcheting up diplomatic pressure on Assad to step down and endorsed an Arab League plan that sees him handing power to a deputy as a prelude to elections.
The wording of the draft reflected a harsh reality: there is little the outside world can or will do to stop the violence as long as Russia and China, both of which declined invitations to the Tunis meeting, reject Security Council resolutions.
Another problem facing world powers is divisions within the Syrian opposition, which they will seek to overcome before offering full backing.
The draft stopped short of fully endorsing the main opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people but proposed that it be recognized as "a legitimate representative of Syrians seeking peaceful democratic change."
A lack of unity within the Syrian opposition and fears that the country is sliding toward civil war have left even Assad's harshest critics reluctant to directly arm Syrian rebels in the absence of any moves towards a Libya-style military campaign.
Syrian opposition figures said they expected support to be financial, technical and logistical, allowing them to buy satellite phones and equipment to improve coordination on the ground or to independently smuggle in small arms.
In a sign that there would be no let up in diplomatic pressure on Assad, Turkey said it would host the next "Friends of Syria" meeting.
The "Friends of Syria" meeting takes place as Syria's military pounded rebel-held Sunni Muslim districts of Homs for the 21st day, despite international protests over the death toll of more than 80 on Wednesday, including two Western journalists.
Residents of Homs fear Assad will subject the city to the same treatment his late father Hafez inflicted on the rebellious town of Hama 30 years ago, when thousands were killed.
The revolt against Assad has taken a sectarian slant as most of the protesters trying to topple him are Sunnis, who make up 74 percent of Syria's 22 million population. Assad is from the minority Alawite sect and critics say he has filled senior posts with Alawites to impose his rule.
U.N. investigators said Syrian forces had shot and killed unarmed women and children, shelled residential areas and tortured wounded protesters in hospital under orders issued at the "highest levels" of the army and government.
In their report to the U.N. Human Rights Council, they called for the perpetrators of such crimes against humanity to face prosecution and said they had drawn up a confidential list of names of commanders and officials alleged to be responsible.
The commission found that the Free Syrian Army, which is made up of thousands of troops who have defected and that has begun to coordinate with the exile-led SNC, had also committed abuses, "although not comparable in scale."
Syrian authorities have not responded, though they rejected the commission's previous report in November as "totally false."
Western diplomats said it had not yet been possible to extract the bodies of Marie Colvin, an American working for Britain's Sunday Times, and French photographer Remi Ochlik.
Two journalists wounded in the same attack were also awaiting evacuation from the Baba Amro neighborhood of Homs which has seen some of the worst bombardment.
The army is blocking medical supplies to parts of Homs and electricity is cut off for 15 hours a day, activists say.
The SNC has said it will call on the "Friends of Syria" to push for the creation of three humanitarian corridors -- one from Lebanon to Homs, one from Turkey to Idlib and one from Jordan to Deraa. It will also call for safe areas for refugees to be established in border areas.
An earlier French proposal to set up humanitarian corridors met with little enthusiasm as it would require military force to keep the areas safe and open.
However, SNC spokeswoman Basma Kodmani said if Russia could persuade Assad to allow safe passage to humanitarian convoys it would avert the need for military intervention.
Russia, which has resisted piling political pressure on Assad, has said it was willing to consider a humanitarian arrangement with the agreement of Assad.
In the midst of the diplomatic deadlock and with the situation worsening inside Syria, this may be the most that the "Friends of Syria" can hope to immediately achieve. That may not be enough to prevent Syria, a country located at the heart of the Middle East, from sliding into a civil war.
"Militarisation has begun in Syria. We are worried about this issue, that if Syrians lose hope in the U.N. and the Arab League they will arm," said Abdel Baset Sieda, a senior SNC official in Tunis for the meeting.
"It is a dangerous issue and if it drags Syria into civil war this will suck in the neighbors."
(Additional reporting by Dominic Evans in Beirut, Khaled Oweis in Amman, Lou Charbonneau at the United Nations, Arshad Mohammed and Myra MacDonald in London; Writing by Lin Noueihed; Editing by Ralph Gowling)