Urgency and frustration at Syria talks

Syrian opposition protesters clash with police outside talks in Tunis. 24 Feb 2012 Syrian opposition protesters clashed with police outside the talks in Tunis

Urgency but also frustration marked this inaugural gathering of the Friends of Syria grouping.

Urgency because of the worsening situation on the ground - but frustration because even the participants knew than none of the measures discussed at the Tunis meeting are likely to bring about the fall of the regime of Bashar al-Assad anytime soon.

Rumour has it that the Saudi Foreign Minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, walked out early in frustration at the limited ambitions for this meeting. Or did he, as his officials say, have to go to a bilateral meeting?

It is clear the Saudis do feel unhappy with the pace of developments and the kind of consensus-driven diplomacy that dominates these kinds of events.

In a meeting with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Prince Saud al-Faisal was asked if he thought arming the Syrian opposition was a good idea.

"I think it's an excellent idea," he replied, suggesting that direction in which his country's stance may be heading.

I asked one prominent Western minister if he thought that certain Gulf countries might already be funding or delivering arms supplies to the Syrian opposition.

His answer was non-committal - accompanied by a smile and a wink - suggesting perhaps that this assertion was not too far from the truth.

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For now it is events on the ground that are set to determine Syria's fate, not diplomatic manoeuvres beyond its borders”

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Diplomatic fireworks

So what was achieved here in Tunis?

The main Syrian opposition group - the Syrian National Council - received a boost to its standing. It is now to be seen by Western and Arab League governments as a legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

Not "the" legitimate representative - it is not yet a government-in-waiting. The hope is that it will step up its efforts to appeal to all sectors of Syrian society and that other groups will coalesce around it to form a much more representative body.

In truth though, diplomats have to deal with the opposition they have, not the one they would like.

There was also agreement to step up preparations to get humanitarian aid into cities like Homs.

The US and others are putting up money. But this all depends upon the Syrian authorities granting humanitarian access.

The small-scale evacuation of casualties from Homs by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Syrian Red Crescent Society is a small positive step, but nobody knows if it will lead to similar humanitarian opportunities.

The reinforcement of economic and diplomatic sanctions was discussed too, but as British Foreign Secretary William Hague admitted, their effect would be cumulative over time rather than immediate.

Hillary Clinton at the Tunis talks Hillary Clinton launched a stinging attack on Russia and China

There were, however, some diplomatic fireworks.

Speaking at the end of the meeting, Mrs Clinton launched a stinging attack against Russia and China for their behaviour in blocking a Syria resolution at the UN Security Council.

Indeed Moscow came in for additional scorn for continuing to arm the Syrian military.

There is no disguising the dismay and some anger here, especially at Russia's position, though the condemnation directed at Moscow could be counter-productive.

Indeed, if there is to be any kind of transition in Syria - short of the wholesale collapse of the regime - Russian diplomacy, given its close friendship with the Assad family over the years, could be an asset.

So the success or failure of this meeting really depends upon how you view it.

In diplomatic terms there were some modest achievements. New mechanisms have been put in place to keep the Syrian crisis at the forefront of the international agenda.

Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has been appointed as the joint UN and Arab League Special Envoy for Syria. And the Friends of Syria group is set to meet again soon - first in Turkey and then in France. It looks like preparations for the long haul.

Viewed perhaps from the perspective of some of the key actors in the region and especially from the Syrian opposition's point of view, this meeting fell way short.

It did little to change one fundamental fact. For now it is events on the ground that are set to determine Syria's fate, not diplomatic manoeuvres beyond its borders.

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