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Side meetings on Syria hold promise at Munich conference

MUNICH — Foreign leaders gathered on a conference stage here Friday to urge international action in Syria and Mali, but the real progress may take place on the sidelines of the event.

Vice President Joe Biden will meet separately on Saturday with Syrian opposition leader Moaz al-Khatib, UN Special envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov at the Munich Security Conference as all sides strive for a resolution to the 22-month conflict.

Al-Khatib, who spoke with Brahimi during a Friday panel discussion on the war, repeated an offer to meet with Syrian government officials, but only under strict conditions including the release of thousands of political prisoners.

Brahimi also urged international action, calling it the only solution to quell a country being torn apart by war.

“The Syrians themselves cannot do anything itself yet about this,” he said. “The region cannot do anything about this. All that’s left is the international community.”

More than 60,000 people have died since the beginning of the war, most of them civilians killed by the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, according to Kenneth Roth, director of Human Rights Watch and a panelist on Friday. More than 700,000 Syrians have become refugees, and more have been internally displaced.

Roth called for international humanitarian assistance that, if necessary, worked around the stalled Security Council. Russia has backed the Assad regime through much of the war, and, with China, vetoed Security Council efforts to condemn or respond to the violence.

Al-Khatib offered the most impassioned voice of the evening, detailing the brutality of the Syrian government, including the recent discovery of dozens of bodies pulled from an Aleppo river. The victims appeared to have been executed.

“The main partner to the regime is the silence of the international community,” al-Khatib said through a translator.

Chosen in December to head a coalition of opposition groups, al-Khatib faced criticism by his partners for offering to meet with the Syrian government. Assad’s removal is the rebels’ primary aim.

The panel touched on France’s military operations in Mali, where French President Francois Hollande and Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian are due to arrive Saturday. France deployed soldiers to the North African country after militants, including an al-Qaeda affiliate, advanced from the north toward the country’s capital, Bamako.

Jean-Claude Mallet, an advisor to Le Drian, called the military action one facet of a larger response to the country that included a political transformation in the capital — where a coup overthrew the elected president last year — as well as humanitarian aid and civil development.

He also answered a question posed by many observers in recent weeks — why France didn’t request a European Union battle group composed of French, German and Polish troops assist in the operation. Mallet said France didn’t believe it had enough time.

“We knew we had a few hours to act very aggressively against this attack,” he responded. “Furthermore, we know that maybe some of our friends would have had more difficulty to enter such a quick action.”

European defense and resource sharing, a hot topic during years of budget slashing across the Continent, is set to be a focus of the conference on Saturday. The annual event brings together foreign policy leaders from across the globe and focuses primarily on the Euro-Atlantic relationship. Biden is scheduled to speak on the U.S. relationship with Europe on Saturday.

beardsley.steven@stripes.com
 

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