'Friends of Syria' gather in hopes of bringing an end to Syria civil war

UK Foreign Secretary William Hague said meeting of 11 countries hoped to set early date for international summit

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The Independent Online

Diplomats gathered in Amman today for the latest Friends of Syria meeting to discuss the prospects of joint US and Russian sponsored peace talks aimed at bringing an end to the country's bloody two-year civil war.

Speaking in the Jordanian capital, Foreign Secretary William Hague, said that the meeting of 11 countries hoped to set a date - as early as next month - for the international summit on the crisis, which would seek to form “a transitional government with full executive authority, formed on the basis of mutual consent,” he said.

Mr Hague was adamant, however, that Syria's President, Bashar al-Assad, had no role in any future administration in Damascus. “It is the longstanding view of the UK that Assad needs to go, and we have never been able to see any solution which involves him staying.”

Assad said in an interview at the weekend that the talks, which are likely to be in Geneva, are doomed to fail. Responding, John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, said that Washington was ready to increase its support for several rebel groups if Assad refuses to cooperate.

The international community has long been stymied be division on how to bring an end to the Syrian conflict. Privately, Western diplomats are furious with the Russians for resisting more pressure on the Assad regime. At the same time, despite desperate calls from rebel fighters on the ground for more arms, countries committed to Assad's departure have resisted providing weapons for fear that they could end up in the hands of the numerous Islamist groups now operating in the country.

Describing the US and Russian backed talks as a potential “turning point” in the conflict, Jordan's Foreign Minister, Nasser Judeh, told reporters that the one day talks were, “part of a political path aimed at ending the violence and bloodshed”.

On the ground in Syria, that end appeared some way off. Rebel groups fighting to defend the strategically important town of Qusair called on fighters across the country to join those in the town and help to repel a sustained onslaught by regular Syrian forces and fighters from Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group.

“O sons of the Syrian revolution, foreign forces are invading your country... They aim to destroy your lives, so rush to defend your nation,” George Sabra, acting head of the opposition National Coalition, said in a statement.

Hezbollah - an ally of the regime in Damascus - appears to have stepped up its involvement in the war in recent months. Mr Hague said the group was now “propping up” the Assad government.

“The Syrian regime is receiving help from Hezbollah and Iran. That's an increasing threat to regional stability,” he said. “If the regime were to think they can win a military victory and go back to whatever was normal before, I think they will be making a terrible error, a catastrophic error. They need a political solution.”

Mr Kerry said that Hezbollah's support for the Syrian regime had increased markedly in recent days. “Just last week, obviously, Hezbollah intervened very, very significantly. There are several thousands of Hezbollah militia forces on the ground in Syria who are contributing to this violence and we condemn that.”

Both Mr Hague and Mr Kerry will remain in the region until Friday for further talks, particularly in Israel, which is getting increasingly concerned about the situation on the border it shares with Syria. The head of the Israeli Air Force warned that war could break out on Israel's northern border at any moment. “If tomorrow Syria collapses, and I am not saying that will happen, we could find ourselves in the thick of it very fast and in great number,” Major General Amir Eshel said.

Britain and Germany favour designating Hezbollah's military wing a terrorist organisation, but require unanimity from each the European Union's member states for the bloc to follow suit. Senior European diplomats have recently rejected the idea, citing the risks to stability in Lebanon. France is thought to be an opponent of such a move.

At the same time as the Amman meeting, Russia's foreign minister Sergei Lavrov hosted Syria's Deputy Foreign Minister, Faisal Muqdad, in Moscow. The talks, according to Russia's state news agency RIA Novosti, were to discuss the planned peace conference. There were no Russian representatives in Amman.