Pressure grows on Assad

By Walt Braun

Not long ago, the Friends of Syria was a loose assortment of entities that served mostly as cheerleaders for Syrians opposed to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. President Assad seemed to dismiss it as irrelevant even as he deployed men and machinery against a weary but determined opposition in Homs and other Syrian cities and towns,

The death toll in a movement that started out as peaceful demonstrations in March 2011 — the Syrian segment of the Arab Spring — has reached 9,000, including an undetermined but considerable number of women and children.

Friends of Syria has grown to 80 nations and international organizations, and if it’s not quite a formal bloc, it’s becoming a force that President Assad can no longer ignore. At a gathering in Istanbul over the weekend, Friends of Syria agreed to provide tangible help to the regime’s opposition.

The group has committed $175 million in humanitarian aid and, importantly, another $100 million to pay opposition fighters and to entice more defectors from Syria’s Army. America’s contribution includes $25 million as well as communications equipment and other items.

Friends of Syria is escalating its investment in part because opposition factions in Syria have begun to work together sufficiently to form the Syrian National Council. It could become recognized as a sort of government-in-exile and possibly offer a viable alternative to President Assad.

Perhaps it is the realization that his opposition has acquired both organization and outside aid that has helped persuade President Assad to agree to begin pulling his forces back from population centers on Sunday. Under a plan pushed by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, President Assad’s army and security forces are to be fully withdrawn by next Tuesday, April 10; a cease-fire would begin 48 hours after that. Other elements of Mr. Annan’s plan include two-hour periods set aside daily so emergency personnel can provide humanitarian aid and the initiation of talks about a new political process.

Although the cease-fire would constitute progress, optimism should remain guarded. After all, President Assad has launched other deadly attacks after promising to hold his fire or withdraw. His regime’s contempt for Friends of Syria was amply clear in the Syrian U.N. Ambassador’s reference to its members as the “enemies of Syria.”

That’s to be expected from the Assad regime, but it would be more accurate to describe the Friends of Syria as enemies of the violence and terror President Assad has unleashed on once-peaceful demonstrators.

However, rather than quash the Arab Spring in Syria, as he had once hoped to do, President Assad seems increasingly likely to become one of its victims.

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