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Friends of Syria to discuss boosting opposition, helping civilians

By the CNN Wire Staff
updated 10:00 PM EDT, Sat March 31, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The Friends of Syria group will meet Sunday in Turkey
  • They'll discuss how to aid the opposition and help those affected by the violence
  • 65 die Saturday in Syria, including 18 "executed," an opposition group says
  • The U.N. estimates over 9,000 have been killed since the unrest began over a year ago

Istanbul, Turkey (CNN) -- Officials from dozens of countries gathered in Turkey on Sunday to discuss the dire situation in neighboring Syria, where months of violence has been compounded by a humanitarian crisis.

The Friends of Syria session is taking place in Istanbul more than a month after a similar meeting was held in Tunisia.

While many world leaders have denounced Syrian President Bashir al-Assad's regime, their actions have done little to curb the violence.

The United Nations estimates at least 1 million have been affected and more than 9,000 have died in the year since the unrest began. Opposition activists put the death toll, at the hands of Syrian forces, at more than 10,000 people.

To date, though, there has been no one opposition leader or group that has spoken for all those pitted against the Damascus government, and there is little indication of a coherent, agreed-upon plan for Syria should al-Assad and his regime fall.

"We need a united opposition, which has been difficult to achieve," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said.

The Syrian National Council, an opposition coalition that includes many exiles, is set to make a presentation at the Istanbul meeting to summarize its efforts to unite the opposition.

Clinton, who arrived in Turkey late Saturday after a two-day trip to Saudi Arabia, said the Friends of Syria will talk about providing humanitarian assistance, how to organize a possible political transition and how to support the opposition with non-lethal means.

A senior U.S. State Department official added that cataloging atrocities, as well as tightening sanctions and better implementing those that already exist, also are on the agenda. There was no mention of authorizing airstrikes targeting Syrian forces as some, such as U.S. Sen. John McCain, have requested.

Another U.S. official said any more sweeping efforts won't happen if the opposition is disjointed.

"They are all over the map, depending on whom you talk on any given day," said the senior U.S. official. "It's hard to think of what we can do going forward, when there is no credible alternative."

Special U.N. and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan has led the latest international diplomatic effort to try to stop the bloodshed.

Al-Assad on Tuesday accepted the terms of the peace plan brokered by Annan that included an end to all violence by the government and opposition, the delivery of timely humanitarian aid, the release of arbitrarily detained people, freedom of movement for journalists, respect for peaceful demonstrations and freedom of association.

It also calls on the Syrian government to "immediately cease troop movements toward, and end the use of heavy weapons in, population centers, and begin pullback of military concentrations in and around population centers."

Despite this plank of the plan, a Syrian official vowed Saturday that military forces will not pull out of cities -- at least not until any given area "is returned to normal life."

"Once peace and security prevail, the army is to pull out," Syrian foreign ministry spokesman Jihad Maqdisi said. "This is the military's duty. This is their mission."

Meanwhile, the bloodshed continued.

On Saturday, the opposition Local Coordination Committees of Syria reported that at least 65 people -- including 10 military defectors and six children -- had been killed by Syrian forces around the country.

Some 18 of the 27 killed in Daraa were "executed in the field," the group said. Another 19 died in Homs, 12 in Idlib, five in Hama and one each in Damascus and the city's suburbs.

Syria's state-run SANA news agency, meanwhile, reported that 20 law enforcement and army troops -- among them, a colonel and a pair of lieutenant colonels -- were buried Saturday.

The news agency also reported that Syrian forces had "foiled an armed terrorist group's attempts to infiltrate" the country from Lebanon, adding those some were killed and others fled into Lebanon after the engagement. Elsewhere, Syrian security forces purportedly "seized" explosive, weapons and ammunition in Homs and in Idlib province.

CNN cannot independently confirm reports from inside Syria because the government severely restricts access by international journalists.

Maqdisi, the government spokesman, said he was optimistic about the government's fight against what it calls "armed terrorist groups." He said the effort to topple the government has failed and that the focus is now on forging stability and reform. Most reports from inside the nation suggest that the government is slaughtering civilians to quash dissent.

"We are in the middle of a diplomatic war against an anti-Syria Western world. Still, Syria's best interest is to make Kofi Annan's mission successful," he said.

Clinton, while in Saudi Arabia on Saturday, slammed the Syrian government's refusal to pull out its troops from cities and stop attacking dissenters. She said the al-Assad regime is staying "true to form" in its refusal to pull back its military -- making a deal with Annan, and refusing to stick to it.

"Every day that goes by, innocents are murdered," she said.

CNN's Saad Abedine, Jill Dougherty and Amir Ahmed and contributed to this report.

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