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What does it mean to be a 'friend' of Syria?

Three years into the Syria crisis, the failure of the international community is breathtaking. As they meet in London, are the ‘Friends of Syria’ part of the problem or the solution?

In the three years of the Syrian uprising, the international community has struggled to coalesce around any single effective strategy to handle the fighting, the politics and the aid.

Syria and the Syrians have been collectively and shamefully let down as the country is bombed, starved and fragmented, caught up in a vortex of repression, civil and proxy wars. It is impossible to escape the charge that they have failed and have no escape route from further disaster.

The Friends of Syria grouping has well over 100 members, so Syria is not short of friends and goodwill but that does not end conflicts.

Sensibly, such an unwieldy grouping has been reduced to a Core Group of 11 states: the US, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Egypt and Jordan. 

This core group will be meeting in London on Thursday but probably to less fanfare and less expectation than ever before. Even among this small core group, there are significant divisions as exposed by the French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius publicly lamenting that the US has not attacked Syria last year.

Even more disastrously for Syria, Ukraine has relegated the eastern Mediterranean crisis to secondary status reflective also of widespread fatigue and despondency.

What Syria has not lacked in these 38 months has been summits and conferences.  Ask Syrians on the ground about them and there is a mixture of anger, bitterness and deep-rooted cynicism. “Why bother with these stupid meetings?” a Syrian friend from Damascus tells me.  “Tell me one positive thing they have achieved."

The Friends of Syria has been perhaps the least effective exercise in Syria-focussed summitry. Formed in February 2012, it serves as a bloc backing one party to the conflict, and one that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad depicts as the enemies of Syria and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin as the enemies of Russia.

Its very formation was a public display of and fomenter of international division on Syria. Russia is seen as the key part of any solution, yet this bloc serves to alienate Putin not engage him. 

A serious drive to formulate a political solution requires a contact group that actually brings all major international actors together, not force them apart.

True friends of Syria need to be focussed solely on a solution, not just supporting one party among many to the conflict. The proper title should be the Friends of the Syria National Coalition.

And what is on the agenda of Thursday's gathering? Will there any political solution be advanced? As most feared, the Geneva II conference has ground to a halt. No new date has been set and Lakhdar Brahmi, the UN envoy, has now called time on his role as UN-Arab-League envoy. The Syrian government is engaged in the ritual farce of a re-coronation of Assad (misleadingly designated as an election).

The administration wants this rotten fig leaf of legitimacy prior to any Geneva III or IV which it believes, combined with battlefield advances, will forestall any further debate on the future of the President.

An argument made by former British prime minister Tony Blair on 23 April will not have escaped the notice of Damascus: “Repugnant though it may seem, the only way forward is to conclude the best agreement possible," said Blair, adding "even if it means in the interim President Assad stays for a period”.

Egypt's likely President Abdel-Fattah Sisi stated on 12 May that there should they needed "to find a peaceful exit as a solution." 

Many in the Syrian National Coalition will be anxious to hear repetition of the pro-forma statements that Assad has to go. In part, they will be reassured by the draft French resolution at the United Nations Security Council referring Syria to the ICC, although this has all the hallmarks of empty gesture politics as Russia has made veto plans on the measure clear. Once again, it is the politics of the empty gesture.

So with no consensus on a political track, increased assistance to their favoured Syrian opposition bloc will return to the top of the Friend's agenda. As ever, the various Syrian opposition forces are desperate for arms. Ahmad Jarba, the President of the Syrian National Coalition, the opposition body anointed by the Friends of Syria as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people, has been pressing for the delivery of MANPADs, shoulder launched surface-to-air-missiles.

The armed groups argue that the military balance on the ground cannot be changed until they can deny regime forces the freedom of the skies, now being used to barrel bomb civilian areas into submission.

To counter the fears that such missiles would fall into extremist control, Jarba has been touting a variety of control mechanisms that would be employed to ensure safe battlefield use. Bereft of ideas, there is a chance that the US administration could green light an ally to provide them fully aware of the threat of them reaching the wrong hands.

The Assad administration’s allies, not least Russia, would likely respond in kind, not least as Moscow has hardened its pro-Assad stance since the Ukraine crisis started. Assad might use this as an excuse to end cooperation on chemical weapons supplies.  It would increase both sides resolute desire to smash the other and the ability to destroy even more of Syria. It would be a public acknowledgement that the Friends of Syria had abandoned any pretense of finding a political solution despite having stated profusely for so long that there is no military one.

What should but is unlikely to happen in London is a serious exercise in re-evaluating the collective approach to Syria. What does it now mean to be a Friend of Syria? And of what Syria? Syrians need the international community to demonstrate genuine political will to end the crisis, the strategy to bring this about and the human and financial resources to implement it.

Given the polarising nature of a group that excludes key actors necessary for such a solution - especially Russia and Iran - the question might be asked, should this bloc join Brahimi in retirement? 

Chris Doyle is the director of CAABU (Council for Arab-British Understanding). As the lead spokesperson for CAABU and as an acknowledged expert on the region, Chris is a frequent commentator on TV and Radio and gives numerous talks around the country on issues such as the Arab Spring, Libya, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Islamophobia and the Arabs in Britain. He has had numerous articles published in the British and international media. He has organized and accompanied numerous British Parliamentary delegations to Arab countries.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo credit: France's Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius (3rdL) presides at the Quai d'Orsay, the French Foreign ministry in Paris on 12 January, the "Friends of Syria" conference (AFP)