TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) -- The nations that make up the Friends of Syria group will call Friday for the United Nations to begin planning a Syria peacekeeping mission once the regime agrees to a cease-fire, a senior diplomat said Friday.
The United States, European and Arab nations were set Friday to demand that Syrian President Bashar Assad agree to an immediate cease-fire and allow humanitarian aid into areas hardest hit by his regime's brutal crackdown on opponents, or face as-yet unspecified punishments and an increasingly emboldened and powerful armed resistance.
Assuming he agrees now, after ignoring numerous similar demands, the UN would then send in a peacekeeping force with the permission of the ruling authority in Syria, whether it is Assad or a successor. The Friends of Syria, meeting Friday in Tunisia, have no more leverage than in previous attempts, either as individual nations or through the United Nations, to make Assad leave. But the diplomat said the demand by the nearly 70 nations involved in the group will simply increase pressure on Assad to see that his demise is inevitable.
The language in the statement will allow UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to begin recruiting nations to join the peacekeeping force, billed as a non-military operation, and start identifying its mandate.
The plan is also designed to signal Russia and China, the two nations that have consistently opposed any foreign intervention in Syria, that their continued support of Assad could leave them out of business and diplomatic opportunities in what the group hopes will be a new Syria.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague described the Syrian government as a "criminal regime" as he arrived at the conference and said he was meeting with the opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Council, boosting their stature.
"We will also intensify our links with the opposition," he said. "We will treat them and recognize them as a legitimate representative of the Syrian people."
"I hope those countries will take note of this strength of international feeling and support that we are seeing here in Tunis," Hague said about Russia and China. "There are more than 60 countries coming together, because it means that they are increasingly isolated in their views."
Alexei Pushkov, a Russian lawmaker, said Friday after meeting Assad that the Syrian president sounded confident and demonstrated no sign he would he step aside. Pushkov warned that arming the Syrian opposition would fuel civil war.
For their part, the Syrian National Council has welcomed the conference as part of their call for a peaceful transition to a democratic regime.
"This conference will help the Syrian people, the revolutionaries, I think; they will give us the power as a national council, a political umbrella for the revolution inside Syria," said Haithem al-Maleh, executive director of the group.
As the conference began Friday, about 200 pro-Syrian demonstrators tried to storm the hotel. The protest forced Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to be diverted to her hotel, delaying her appearance.
The protesters, waving Syrian and Tunisian flags, tussled with police and carried signs criticizing Clinton and President Barack Obama. They were driven out of the parking lot by police after about 15 minutes.
On Thursday, the Friends of Syria worked out details of the demands in London as the former UN chief, Kofi Annan, was named to be a joint U.N.-Arab League envoy to deal with the crisis.
Russia and China reiterated their opposition to an international resolution. Both nations say they support a "speedy end" to the violence, but they have vetoed two U.N. Security Council resolutions backing Arab League plans aimed at ending the conflict and condemning Assad's crackdown.
Diplomats said Assad's continued failure to comply with international demands would result in tougher sanctions and predicted that his opponents would grow stronger unless he accedes and accepts a political transition that would see him leave power.
If Assad doesn't comply, "we think that the pressure will continue to build. ... I think that the strategy followed by the Syrians and their allies is one that can't stand the test of legitimacy ... for any length of time," Clinton told reporters in London after meeting about a dozen of her foreign minister colleagues to prepare for the Tunis event.
"There will be increasingly capable opposition forces," she said. "They will, from somewhere, somehow, find the means to defend themselves as well as begin offensive measures."
Clinton and others ruled out any overt, direct lethal military aid to Assad's opponents, but her comments indicated that such steps were at least being considered if not already being done.
A draft of the Tunis conference's final document obtained by The Associated Press calls on "the Syrian government to implement an immediate cease-fire and to allow free and unimpeded access by the United Nations and humanitarian agencies to carry out a full assessment of needs in Homs and other areas."
Homs, Syria's third-largest city, has been under a fierce government attack for nearly three weeks.
The draft, which is still subject to change, also demands "that humanitarian agencies be permitted to deliver vital relief goods and services to civilians affected by the violence." More than 5,400 people have been killed in the nearly year-old uprising.
Meanwhile, Tunisia's presidential spokesman, Adnan Mancer, told the AP in an interview ahead of Friday's meeting that the North African country will propose a political solution to the Syrian crisis that includes deployment of a peacekeeping force and Assad stepping down from power.
The political transition would be akin to what happened in Yemen, where president Ali Abdullah Saleh quit in favor of his deputy after widespread protests. The Arab League already has made similar calls on Assad.
To spur negotiations in that direction, the Arab League and United Nations on Thursday jointly appointed Annan, the former U.N. secretary-general, to be their special envoy to Syria with a mandate to bring an end to the violence and promote a peaceful political solution.
Annan will work on bringing an end to "all violence and human rights violations, and promoting a peaceful solution to the Syrian crisis," the two bodies said in a statement.
He will work with the government and opposition to forge "a peaceful Syrian-led and inclusive political solution that meets the democratic aspirations of the Syrian people through a comprehensive political dialogue between the Syrian government and the whole spectrum of the Syrian opposition," the statement said.
American officials accompanying Clinton to the Friends of Syria meeting said the group would make clear to Assad that his regime has a moral obligation to end the shelling of civilian areas and allow assistance into the country. The burden is on Assad to respond to the demands of the international community, they said.
"The efforts that we are undertaking with the international community ... are intended to demonstrate the Assad regime's deepening isolation," Clinton said. "Our immediate focus is on increasing the pressure. We have got to find ways of getting food, medicine and other humanitarian assistance into affected areas. This takes time, and it takes a lot of diplomacy."
Several nations have proposed creating protected corridors through which humanitarian relief could flow, but it was not clear whether a consensus could be reached on the matter, as such a step almost certainly would require a military component.
"There is no military option at the moment on the table, and as I have said before, France could not envisage such an option without an international mandate. It's a clear and constant guideline," French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said after discussions in London.
Hague, the British foreign secretary, said military intervention was very unlikely, noting that "the consequences of any outside intervention are much harder to foresee."
More workable, officials said, would be a cease-fire such as the one proposed by the International Committee of the Red Cross, which is calling for a daily two-hour break in fighting to provide aid.
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