Foreign ministers from Europe, the United States, and the Arab League meeting in Tunisia this week will focus on finding ways to get humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people as President Bashar al-Assad continues his brutal crackdown. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who will attend the first-ever “Friends of Syria” meeting in Tunisia, will also focus on ramping up the pressure on Assad to agree to a cease-fire—and ultimately to step down.
Ahead of Friday's meeting, Clinton met with her counterparts on the sidelines of the London conference on Somalia. “She has had a lot of discussions, for example, on the humanitarian aspect," a State Department official told reporters traveling with Clinton in London. "How can we work together as an international community in a concrete and tangible way to address the very real needs of the Syrian people? There is a lot of concern, of course, about what’s happening in places like Homs, the horrific conditions … and how do we get the right type of humanitarian and medical assistance that people need.”
While the countries have been working with various humanitarian organizations on the ground, "the real challenge is the access issue," the official continued. "It is going to be up to the Syrian government ... to respond to [the] international community’s real commitment to provide the type of assistance.”
The U.S. and European and Arab nations are considering issuing an ultimatum to Assad at the conference demanding he agree to a cease-fire and allow humanitarian aid into the areas hardest hit by the crackdown, according to the Associated Press. An option on the table is to issue punitive measures—possibly even more sanctions—if Assad doesn’t comply within 72 hours, the AP reported. “We have implemented sanctions on Syria and continue to look at the ways that we can increase the pressure,” the official said.
The Syrian National Council—an opposition network primarily of people outside the country—will be presenting its own plan for transition at the meeting. Everyone at the conference is backing the Arab League’s transition plan that requires Assad to hand power to a deputy and set up a new unity government, the official said, adding that the Syrian National Council must articulate its own plan in a compelling way.
Humanitarian “safe havens” and “corridors” for the delivery of food and medicine to besieged Syrian civilians are also likely to be high on the agenda. Similar safe havens were established in Bosnia during the bloody Balkan wars of the 1990s, though they eventually had to be protected by NATO airpower. Turkish officials are reportedly increasingly open to the idea, as are the Persian Gulf states and Saudi Arabia. If such an initiative were agreed upon, which is by no means guaranteed, Turkey could possibly lead a regional “coalition of the willing” that would include Arab League countries, with the United States once again likely to play a supporting role.