It's unlikely that Syrian President Bashar Assad will lose sleep over Friday's Friends of Syria gathering in Tunisia. The group of more than 60 nations reiterated demands that Assad immediately cease escalating violence and allow humanitarian aid to areas that his security forces have relentlessly pummeled. But there was no credible threat of force issued by the conference. The "or else" clause, such as it was, was relatively mild: increased international isolation and more significant further sanctions on Syrian exports and members of Assad's inner circle.
The final communiqué also called on the U.N. to plan for a civilian peacekeeping mission in a country that is not at peace. Burhan Ghalioun, leader of the Syrian National Council (SNC), the fragmented de facto opposition group, said the meeting fell short "of the aspirations of the Syrian people."
It was a view shared by many on the Twittersphere and on Arabic satellite-channel talk shows. "While the suits have been meeting, 93 people were killed around #Syria today. 93," one commentator on Twitter said. "Suggestion 2Friends of #Syria: Just give us the cost of all ur conferences we can buy the tools 2liberate ourselves. Thanks 4ur time!" said another. The official line was just as pessimistic if worded much more politely. "Don't expect things to change 180 degrees because we held this conference," Tunisian Foreign Minister Rafik Abdessalem said at the press conference concluding the meeting.
After 11 months of violence that left thousands dead, that's not good enough for Syrian antigovernment commentators and countries like Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the loudest advocate of action to stop the bloodshed. The kingdom's Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal walked out of the conference, the Saudi-owned al-Arabiya satellite channel reported, citing its "inactivity." Instead, arming Assad's opponents was "an excellent idea," he said in remarks that suggest that even if others refuse to consider the military option, the kingdom may funnel funds and arms to Syrian rebels.
"We did not talk about weapons," Tunisia's Abdessalem said, rejecting the notion of both foreign military intervention and arming Assad's opponents. "We have had enough failed military excursions in the region," he said. "We do not want to use military force or weapons. We want a peaceful transition."
But the Syrian President isn't willing to let that happen. He has made it clear that he's not going anywhere and that he retains significant support inside Syria, especially among the country's sizable minority communities. Assad has opted for a "security solution" to the country's troubles, by shelling and choking residential rebel areas by cutting power, water and basic supplies to them. Besides, he also has his own powerful friends, namely Russia and China, who both declined invitations to attend Friday's conference and whose vetoes saved Assad from censure at the U.N. Security Council. And then, of course, there's Iran, Syria's resolute partner in the region.
Still, on Friday, Assad lost a key ally the Palestinian militant group Hamas. Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh voiced support for Syrian protesters, saying, "We commend the brave Syrian people who are moving toward democracy and reform."
It's a reminder of the intricate and volatile neighborhood Assad lives in. There are no easy or clear options when it comes to resolving the Syrian crisis and the lack of credible options was on display at Friday's conference. Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki said that "real friends of Syria" should insist on a political solution. He suggested immunity for Assad and his family, an option already roundly rejected by Syria's political and military opposition as well as protesters on the ground who are calling for nothing less than the President's execution.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered $10 million in humanitarian aid to Damascus, warning that if the regime refused the assistance, "it will have even more blood on its hands. So too will those nations that continue to protect and arm the regime," she said, referring primarily to Russia. "We call on those states that are supplying weapons to kill civilians to halt immediately." Meanwhile, Qatar's Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani called for intervention. "There is a need to create an Arab force and open humanitarian corridors to provide security to the Syrian people," he said.
Stepping into this political melee is former U.N. chief Kofi Annan, who has been appointed as a joint U.N.-Arab League special envoy for Syria.
Arming the rebels is perhaps the most divisive issue facing the international community. On the one hand, it risks deepening rather than stemming the bloodbath, as well as drawing in volatile neighbors. On the other, it will at least even the odds for Assad's opponents, who have been relying on weapons smuggled across porous borders as well as overrunning loyalist outposts to restock their limited supplies.
The SNC called on the international community to arm the rebels if the regime continues to ignore political initiatives. "The Friends of Syria should not constrain individual countries from aiding the Syrian opposition by means of military advisers, training and provision of arms to defend themselves," the group said in a seven-point statement of demands.
But the SNC has its own problems to contend with even as it tries to project itself as a viable alternative to Assad. Internally fragmented and increasingly distanced from activists inside Syria, the SNC won a measure of support on Friday when the conference recognized it as a legitimate representative of the Syrian people at Friday's conference, although not the sole representative. Other Syrian opposition groups were invited, including the Damascus-based (and some would say co-opted) National Coordination Committee, which boycotted the meeting because it would not rule out the idea of military intervention.
Few in Syria are calling for NATO boots on the ground. Rather, the demands have been almost unanimously for arms, assistance for the rebels and air support. The Friends of Syria appear to have other ideas. Even before the meeting ended, reports emerged of a second Friends of Syria gathering to be held in Turkey, and then a third in France. "Is this all you can do, as friends of Syria, to stop the bloodbath?" a Syrian journalist asked the Tunisian Foreign Minister at the press conference on Friday. "We stand by the Syrian people, and this is not nothing," the minister said. It may be something but, for many, it's not enough.