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Countries backing Syrian opposition have little good news going into London meeting

A woman walks past a burning shop in the Maskuf market in the Old City of Homs on May 12, 2014. (Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images)

When they meet Thursday to review events in Syria, representatives of the 11 leading countries backing the Syrian opposition will have little, if any, good news to consider.

Two weeks ago, the top United Nations humanitarian official reported that “far from getting better, the situation is getting worse” for the more than 9 million Syrians displaced by the conflict. Last week, rebel fighters were forced to abandon the city of Homs to government forces after defending it, with countless deaths, for two years.

U.N. special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi is widely expected to announce his resignation Tuesday, and on June 3, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad plans to run for reelection in a vote that the United States and its allies have denounced as a “parody” of democracy.

“It doesn’t mean we’re giving up in any way,” said a European official whose foreign minister will attend Thursday’s meeting of the diplomatic grouping known as the London 11, along with Secretary of State John F. Kerry. “We’re determined to keep bringing the foreign ministers together.”

“That’s not to say we don’t understand the conflict could go on for several years,” the official said.

U.N. special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said it is "very sad" to be leaving "Syria behind in such a bad state" as he announced he is stepping down from his position as mediator. (Reuters)

The London 11 — made up of the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Jordan and Egypt — is the “core” group of more than 70 nations that met early in the Syrian conflict to support the opposition. The group, which gathers regularly, last met in January.

The question of arms shipments to the rebels has vexed the group from the start. While Persian Gulf backers have pushed to supply surface-to-air missiles to down Assad’s air force, the Obama administration and Europe remain worried that the weapons could fall into the hands of Islamist extremists who have grown ever stronger on the rebel side.

The administration is expected to rebuff appeals in Washington this week by Ahmad al-Jarba, the president of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, officials said.

“Our main preoccupation for delivering arms to the opposition is to be sure they go to the good guys, and we don’t have all the assurances we need,” said a second European official, one of several who spoke about the sensitive issue on the condition of anonymity.

“Frankly, we don’t have high expectations about this meeting,” this official said of the London gathering. “But it’s important that the subject remains on the international agenda.”

“It will be sort of a reset,” a senior Obama administration official said.

With little hope of military progress, the United States and Europe have searched for new ways to diminish Assad and improve the humanitarian situation on the ground in Syria.

The administration hopes that Jarba’s visibility during his week-long Washington stay will bolster his credibility both internationally and within his own fractious organization of political leaders. A meeting this week with national security adviser Susan E. Rice, with a possible drop-in by President Obama, is “part of our commitment to empower” the opposition coalition, White House press secretary Jay Carney said Monday.

Last week, the administration announced that it would recognize the coalition as a “foreign mission,” a symbolic status that falls far short of considering it the government of Syria, and would provide an additional $27 million in “nonlethal” aid.

France plans to introduce a new U.N. Security Council resolution referring Syrian government officials to the International Criminal Court to be prosecuted for crimes against humanity. Although the United States has declined ICC membership, the administration has indicated that it would support the referral. Russia, Assad’s main weapons supplier and diplomatic supporter, is likely to veto a resolution.

A resolution passed in March, with Russian support, called for the United Nations to begin “cross-border” delivery of humanitarian aid to besieged Syrian communities, where up to a quarter-million people are said to be starving.

But the U.N. agencies that have administered the bulk of billions of dollars in foreign assistance have continued to interpret that mandate as prohibiting shipment of humanitarian aid into Syria without the Assad government’s permission.

Increasingly frustrated with the U.N. system, Britain said last week that it would shift at least half of its assistance — totaling about $1 billion over the past three years — away from the United Nations to nongovernmental organizations.

“People are dying every day because the Assad regime is preventing U.N. agencies, including the World Food Program, from delivering lifesaving aid to besieged and rebel-held areas,” a British government spokesman said.

“We know U.N. agencies have been doing their level best, but it’s now clear that we cannot rely on the U.N. alone to help the very hardest to reach.”

Karen DeYoung is associate editor and senior national security correspondent for the Washington Post.



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