Middle East

Istanbul summit tries to increase pressure on Syria

Foreign ministers from more than 70 Western and Arab countries have sought to increase pressure on Syria at a key meeting in Istanbul.

The "Friends of the Syrian People" summit warned Damascus not to stall on implementing a UN-Arab peace plan and stressed support for the opposition.

However key players remained absent, including Russia, China and Iran.

Damascus dubbed the summit the "enemies of Syria" and has declared its victory over rebel fighters.

'We cannot wait'

Syria has in principle agreed to the six-point peace plan proposed by UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan.

However, many of those at the summit appeared sceptical it would implement it.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said: "Nearly a week has gone by, and we have to conclude that the regime is adding to its long list of broken promises."

Opening the summit, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said: "The Syrian regime should not be allowed at any cost to manipulate this plan to gain time."

But the BBC's Jim Muir, in Beirut, says the Syrian government feels confident that it has little to fear from the Istanbul gathering - state television carried parts of the opening speeches from the conference live, dubbing it the "enemies of Syria" meeting.

Mrs Clinton called for a unified response on renewed action against Damascus should it fail to implement the Annan plan, saying "we cannot sit back and wait any longer".

However, there remain a number of issues on which there appears little unity.

A call by Burhan Ghalioun, leader of the main opposition Syrian National Council (SNC), for "security corridors" inside Syria to allow the delivery of aid to civilians has so far not been heeded.

There is also serious division over arming the rebels. Qatar and Saudi Arabia have argued strongly for such support, but most of those at the summit remain opposed. They fear a flood of weapons could fuel a sectarian civil war.

Mr Ghalioun has also pressed for the SNC to be recognised as "the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people".

But French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said the conference had agreed to recognise it as the "main point of contact".

Mr Juppe added that a deadline must be set for Syria to implement the Annan plan.

The head of the Arab League, Nabil al-Arabi, told the summit it should "simultaneously call on the Security Council to take a binding decision... to stop the violence in Syria".

Image caption Mrs Clinton and Mr Erdogan are both sceptical about Syria's intentions on the Annan plan

However, Russia and China have balked at Security Council resolutions and were pointedly absent in Istanbul.

Iraq is attending, although it had earlier suggested it might not. However, on Sunday Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said he opposed arming the opposition and believed the Syrian government would survive.

He said: "It has been one year and the regime did not fall, and it will not fall, and why should it fall?"

The Syrian government says it is close to ending the uprising.

Syrian foreign ministry spokesman Jihad al-Makdissi told Syrian TV "the battle to topple the state is over".

Violence continued on Sunday, with more than 10 people reported killed, a day after more than 60 people died across the country.

Our correspondent says that in the latest violence, activists reported attacks by security forces in areas near the Iraqi border to the east, and the Jordanian frontier to the south.

The UN believes at least 9,000 people have died in the year-long revolt against Mr Assad's rule.

Image caption The Syrian government has been trying to suppress an uprising inspired by events in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. The UN says thousands have been killed in the crackdown, and that many more have been detained and displaced. The Syrian government says hundreds of security forces personnel have also died combating "armed terrorist gangs".
Image caption The family of President Bashar al-Assad has been in power since his father, Hafez, took over in a coup in 1970. The country underwent some liberalisation after Bashar became president in 2000, but the pace of change soon slowed, if not reversed. Critics are imprisoned, domestic media are tightly controlled, and economic policies often benefit the elite. The country's human rights record is among the worst in the world.
Image caption Syria is a country of 21 million people with a Sunni Muslim majority (74%) and significant minorities of Alawites - the Shia heterodox sect to which Mr Assad belongs - and Christians. Mr Assad promotes a secular identity for the country, but he has concentrated power in the hands of family and other Alawites. Protests have generally been biggest in Sunni-dominated areas.
Image caption Under the sanctions imposed by the Arab League, US and EU, Syria's two most vital sectors, tourism and oil, have ground to a halt in recent months. The IMF says Syria's economy contracted by 2% in 2011, while the value of the Syrian pound has crashed. Unemployment is high, electricity cuts trouble Damascus, and critical products like heating oil and staples like milk powder are becoming scarce.
Image caption Pro-democracy protests erupted in March 2011 after the arrest and torture of a group of teenagers who had painted revolutionary slogans on walls at their school in the southern city of Deraa. Security forces opened fire during a march against the arrests, killing four. The next day, the authorities shot at mourners at the victims' funerals, killing another person. People began demanding the overthrow of Mr Assad.
Image caption The government has tried to deal with the situation with a combination of minor concessions and force. President Assad ended the 48-year-long state of emergency and introduced a new constitution offering multi-party elections. But at the same time, the authorities have continued to use violence against unarmed protesters, and some cities, like Homs, have suffered weeks of intense bombardment.
Image caption The opposition is deeply divided. Several groups formed a coalition, the Syrian National Council (SNC), but it is dominated by the Sunni community and exiled dissidents. The SNC disagrees with the National Co-ordination Committee (NCC) on the questions of talks with the government and foreign intervention, and has found it difficult to work with the Free Syrian Army - army defectors seeking to topple Mr Assad by force.
Image caption International pressure on the Syrian government has been intensifying. It has been suspended from the Arab League, while the EU and the US have imposed sanctions. However, there has been no agreement on a UN Security Council resolution calling for an end to violence. Although military intervention has been ruled out by Western nations, there are increasing calls to arm the opposition.
Image caption Correspondents say a peaceful solution seems unlikely. Syria's leadership seems intent on crushing resistance and most of the opposition will only accept an end to the regime. Some believe the expected collapse of Syria's currency and an inability to pay salaries may be the leadership's downfall. There are fears, though, that the resulting chaos would be long-lasting and create a wider conflict.