(MENAFN - Arab News) For millions of Syrians the outcome of the second "Friends of Syria" conference, which was held in Istanbul on Monday, was a big letdown.
More than 80 countries and organizations attended the meeting, underlying growing international sympathy and solidarity with the anti-regime popular uprising entering its second year. But other than the usual fiery statements calling on President Bashar Assad to cease the countrywide military onslaught against his own people or face dire consequences, there was little else. It is true that the conference recognized the Syrian National Council (SNC) as a legitimate representative of the Syrian people, a victory for the shaky coalition of most opposition groups, but it also sidelined other demands. The conference failed to respond to calls to provide arms to the Syrian Free Army or create safe corridors for fleeing refugees. Most importantly, the gathering reiterated support to mediation efforts of UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan and his peace plan and asked that a timetable be created allowing for the possibility of going back to the Security Council.
The Istanbul meeting final communiqu represented the bare minimum on which so-called Friends of Syria club of nations could agree at this point. It reflected a delicate consensus by Western powers, led by the United States, and Arab and regional countries, including Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which have a stake in the outcome of the Syrian crisis. Those who support arming the Syrians could not force their point of view. For now the only thing the world can do is to give Annan a chance to end the violence and kick-start a political process.
Russia was quick to criticize the Istanbul meet and reject linking a deadline to Annan's initiative. In Damascus the regime celebrated what it called "the end of the battle to bring down the state." It called the conference "another failure" and an attempt to bypass Annan's mission. In Baghdad, Prime Minister Nuri Al Maliki, whose country took over the Arab League presidency earlier in the week, said the Syrian regime will not fall and criticized Arab countries who are "inflaming the crisis."
All eyes are now on Annan and his plan, which was accepted by the Syrian government and is supported by Russia and China. But as Damascus defended the plan army troops continued to pound Homs and Idlib and chase armed rebels in various parts of the country. An immediate cease-fire, truce, allowing humanitarian aid and preparing for dialogue, all basic components of the Annan peace plan, were still far from being observed. Critics say Assad had embraced the plan because he knew that it was impossible to implement. But most importantly it put Assad back in the driver's seat as a legitimate leader.
President Assad will feel relieved that his international and regional foes were unable to escalate the campaign against him. So far the United States and its European allies do not believe that arming the Syrian rebels will help bring an end to the crisis. On the contrary, militarizing the conflict will suck the country into a long and bloody civil war.
On the other hand, the opposition remains deeply divided, while Assad's domestic front is steadfast. The army remains loyal and there have been fewer defections than originally anticipated. It is clear now that a repeat of the Libyan scenario is out of question. The West will not be drawn into another military adventure for different reasons. Syria's geopolitical position is an important factor. Any change in Syria will ultimately affect Israel with which the Assad dynasty has had an unswerving truce for decades. The Israelis would not want to see Syria turn into another Iraq so close to their borders.
In fact, support of the Annan plan underscores a retreat from earlier positions that called on Assad to step down. Dialogue between the opposition and the government, if that stage is ever reached, will take place at the regime's conditions.
Until such a time the government will keep Annan's initiative alive while it attempts to secure rebellious cities and towns. But there are risks involved. Turkey has hinted that if the regime continues to ignore calls for a cease-fire and the Security Council fails to act, then individual countries will have no choice but to help Syrians defend themselves.
The Syrian crisis has proved to be more complicated than anyone has imagined. The only consistent fact is that tens of Syrians are getting killed and injured every day. The regime has not backed down despite biting economic sanctions and international isolation. But it has also failed to provide an alternative to the daily killing spree. And, surprisingly, the Syrian people have shown no sign of giving up on their goal of toppling the regime. They now know that little help will come from their so-called friends. They are on their own, but how long can they keep up the struggle?