New approach needed for Syria says UAE foreign minister

Sheikh Abdullah identifies shortcomings in international efforts to pressure Damascus to halt crackdown on dissidents; asks delegates at Friends of Syria conference to alter its approach.

An undated handout file photo in an undisclosed location in Syria shows Syrian General Munaf Tlass, right, with Syrian President Bashar Al Assad.
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Marseille, France // As Arab and western opponents of Syria's regime gathered in Paris yesterday, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs, called for a change in strategy to put an end to Bashar Al Assad's "crimes and massacres against the Syrian people".

"When will we say to the Syrian regime, enough of the killings, destruction and massacres?" he asked delegates from 107 nations attending the latest Friends of Syria conference. "When will we stop just watching and talking?"

In a speech reported by the Wam news agency, Sheikh Abdullah asked how many more Syrians had to die before the international community altered its approach.

The delegates at the meeting, held with Russia and China as notable absentees, approved a joint statement demanding the departure of Mr Al Assad as a prerequisite of peace and pledging support for a United Nations resolution on sanctions, not excluding the use of military force.

Sheikh Abdullah had earlier identified shortcomings in collective efforts to apply pressure on Damascus with the aim of halting a crackdown on dissidents that is estimated to have led to thousands of deaths.

Denouncing the Syrian regime for "lying" and relying on "false pretexts", he said: "Some spoke today about the imposition of more sanctions, but the question is whether these penalties will change the behaviour of the Syrian regime and put an end to its crimes and massacres against the Syrian people.

"All countries gathered here and which have economic relations with Syria have imposed the maximum extent of sanctions on that country, yet it could not make any change in the behaviour of the Syrian regime that continues to kill and commit atrocities."

Sheikh Abdullah also expressed surprise and dismay at the absence from the Paris talks of Kofi Annan, the UN and Arab League envoy to Syria.

"Where is Mr Kofi Annan, why didn't he attend the conference and talk to us?" the minister asked. "It is shameful that a person in the status of Kofi Annan is absent at this meeting … Is there any better place than this for Mr Annan to be present in this circumstance?"

There was no immediate explanation for Mr Annan's absence from the meeting.

The French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, told the conference: "For all participants, one fact is clear: Bashar Al Assad must leave power and the sooner the better." He said the action of the UN Security Council should be strengthened, which meant a "clear call for the urgent adoption of a resolution under Chapter VII".

This would not exclude military intervention, which neither Russia nor China, both holding the power of veto, has any intention of supporting. Moscow and Beijing insist it is for the Syrians alone to determine their future.

The conference heard yesterday of the defection of one of the most prominent members of Syria's ruling elite - Brigadier General Manaf Tlass - a personal friend of the Syrian president. It was seen by some as a serious blow to Mr Al Assad's rule.

UN diplomats have been working on a document calling for restrictions on commercial activity if Mr Assad fails to abide by Mr Annan's plan for a ceasefire.

A proposed road map for political transition, agreed in a Geneva meeting of world powers last weekend, provides for an interim government to enable the Syrian people to live "independently and democratically". Mr Assad, though denied any role in Syria's future, would have an effective veto over any interim successor he opposed.

The Syrian government blames the uprising on armed gangs seeking to weaken the country.

The UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon has suggested in a report to the Security Council that the UN scale back its observer mission in Syria and shift its focus to political engagement. A draft of the report, provided yesterday to the Associated Press, includes several options for the force of about 300 UN observers, who were sent to Syria to monitor the violence as part of Mr Annan's peace plan. One is to temporarily reduce the number of military observers and focus on political engagement until the fighting subsides. The observers have been confined to their hotels since June 15 after being fired on repeatedly. In his opening of the Paris meeting, which followed similar Friends of Syria gatherings in Tunis and Istanbul, the French president François Hollande said stopping the conflict was a "human and political necessity".

"The crisis has become a threat to international peace and security," he said.

The British foreign secretary William Hague said: "We don't rule out any option for the future because it is deteriorating. It is a murdering regime, so we want to see a peaceful transition, but we are not ruling anything out."

The US secretary of state Hillary Clinton appealed for collective pressure on Russia and China to drop what she termed their support for the Syrian regime.

She told delegates: "I ask you to reach out to Russia and China and to not only urge but demand that they get off the sidelines and begin to support the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people. I don't think Russia and China believe they are paying any price at all, nothing at all, for standing up on behalf of the Assad regime."

Despite the absence of the Russian or Chinese delegates, Moscow swiftly responded to Mrs Clinton's comments, accusing her of contradicting the Annan plan, which Russia supported, and rejecting the suggestion that "Russia supports the regime of Bashar Al Assad in the situation that has formed in Syria".

Syrian opposition groups insist that sanctions alone will not topple the Assad regime and seem unlikely to be impressed by the outcome of the Paris talks.

Burhan Ghalioun, the former leader of the Syrian National Council speaking in the French capital, said: "I am not satisfied at all because the Syrians are not waiting for news communiqués.

"What preoccupies the Syrians today is the way we can stop the massacre. Every day there are 100, 130, 150 victims and the people only think about that," he said. "They want action. They want measures and [a] practical mechanism to stop the killings."

*Additional reporting by Reuters and Associated Press