TUNIS, Tunisia - Leaders of more than 60 nations and international groups called on Syria’s government yesterday to halt attacks on rebellious cities to allow in humanitarian supplies and asked the United Nations to begin planning for a peacekeeper force, even as some evacuations began from a hard-hit neighborhood in the besieged city of Homs.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said the Syrian Red Crescent had begun evacuations of some women and children after three weeks of constant bombardment of Homs that has left the city with many wounded and desperate for food and medicine.
Hicham Hassan, a Red Cross spokesman, said talks were continuing to remove two Western journalists wounded earlier this week from the neighborhood, Baba Amr. Another spokesperson said seven wounded people had already been taken from the area to a nearby hospital.
The officials, gathered here in Tunisia’s capital for the meeting called “friends of the Syrian people,’’ said they would tighten sanctions and travel bans against President Bashar Assad and his senior aides. They also pledged to provide millions of dollars worth of food and medicine to be distributed from border areas in Turkey, Jordan and, possibly, Lebanon.
While intended to demonstrate international unity against Assad’s government, the meeting here underscored the deepening divisions over how to end a violent crackdown inside Syria that has now lasted nearly a year and resulted in thousands of deaths.
Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Prince Saud, pointedly expressed frustration that the world was not doing enough. And later in a meeting with US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, he said that arming Syria’s largely unorganized opposition was “an excellent idea,’’ though it was not on the agenda of Friday’s meeting.
“Is it justice to offer aid and leave the Syrians to the killing machine?’’ he told the gathering, according to Al Arabiya television, a private Saudi-owned news channel.
The United States and other nations have ruled out military intervention in Syria, but the violence in Syria is increasingly creating a confrontation between nations weighing in on either side of the conflict.
President Obama intensified his criticism of Syria’s leader, accusing the Assad government of engaging in “the slaughter of innocents.’’ Repeating his call on Assad to step down, Obama vowed to “look for every tool available’’ to calm the country, but offered no new approach.
The request to the United Nations to begin planning for a peacekeeping mission, which would ultimately require Security Council approval, risked yet another diplomatic showdown with Russia and China. And arming Syria’s opposition raised the prospect of a proxy war in the Middle East.
A Russian official yesterday blamed the United States, NATO, and the Arab League for fomenting the violence inside Syria by supporting the opposition, denouncing the meeting as foreign interference that would fail to loosen Assad’s grip on power.
“There is no situation there which would raise the question of Assad’s departure,’’ said Alexei K. Pushkov, a senior member of the Russian Parliament who visited Damascus this week and met with the Syrian leader. “This is an absolutely artificial and far-fetched theme. Everyone who arrives there understands why Assad is not leaving: Because he has no reason to leave.’’
As the leaders began to arrive at a seaside hotel in Tunis, the capital of the country where the popular uprisings known as the Arab Spring began more than a year ago, a couple of hundred Assad supporters noisily demonstrated outside, shouting and waving signs declaring those here “enemies of Syria.’’
Although the leaders here cast their demand to allow humanitarian assistance as something of an ultimatum, they did not detail the consequences for Assad if he refused. Instead, the leaders hoped to create what one official in attendance called “a tsunami’’ of diplomatic, economic and ultimately moral pressure on Syria’s government and its patrons.
“If the Assad regime refuses to allow this life-saving aid to reach civilians, it will have even more blood on its hands,’’ Clinton said in her remarks to the assembled leaders. “So, too, will those nations that continue to protect and arm the regime.’’
The scrupulously negotiated language of the meeting’s final statement dropped an explicit call by some nations for “a peaceful, nonmilitary solution’’ in favor of those, including the United States, who wanted a more open-ended reference to “a political solution’’ that did not preclude future military action.
The meeting here was modeled on the international conferences that accompanied the NATO-led conflict in Libya last year.
Also yesterday, a leader of Hamas spoke out against Assad, throwing its support behind the opposition and stripping Damascus of what little credibility it might have retained with the Arab street.
Hamas’s prime minister in Gaza, Ismail Haniya, said during Friday prayers, “I salute all people of the Arab Spring, or Islamic Winter, and I salute the Syrian people who seek freedom, democracy and reform.’’
The worshippers shouted back, “Allahu Akbar,’’ or “God is great,’’ and “Syria! Syria!’’
Haniya’s remarks were a reversal after years in which Assad has given haven to leaders of Hamas while helping supply it with weapons and cash in its battle against Israel. But the remarks were almost as significant for where they were made: in Cairo, at Al Azhar Mosque. During the years in which Syria supported Hamas, Egypt’s leaders were hostile to the group, treating it as a despised relative of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was also tagged an outlaw and banned. So Haniya’s remarks in Egypt served as another measure of how much has changed since popular uprisings began to sweep the region, removing President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and now attempting to topple Assad.
Haniya’s comments confirmed a distance between Hamas and Damascus that emerged several weeks ago when the group’s leadership abandoned its longtime base in Syria as the environment there became more violent.
The remarks, which were viewed as the group’s official position because of Haniya’s role, reflected a progressively deeper split with Assad. Hamas also recently allowed residents of Gaza to stage protests against Assad.