As U.S.-sponsored 'Friends of Syria' Conference Is Set to Begin in Istanbul, Assad Has Little to Fear

The conference, scheduled to be attended by representatives from more than 70 countries, is unlikely to pose a real threat to Assad's regime, particularly due to the absence of China and Russia.

The gathering of the "Friends of the Syrian People" in Istanbul, scheduled to open on Sunday, is the latest diplomatic move in a series of steps that have so far produced no real results. Representatives from over 70 countries – headed by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton but without delegates from Russia and China – will try once again to formulate the policies for dealing with the crisis in Syria. At the very least, delegates are seeking to assist tens of thousands of Syrian refugees and citizens stranded in their homes, suffering from the military's attacks while having no access to medical attention and basic food supplies.

Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan's recent plan - which calls for a ceasefire and a retreat of President Bashar Assad's forces from city centers - was practically put to rest on Saturday by Clinton during a press conference with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al Faisal. Clinton indicated she has little confidence that Assad would cooperate with Annan's plan.

Clinton Syria - AP - March 31, 2012

A report which Annan will present to the UN General Security Council on Monday is also unlikely to change the situation; Assad continues to butcher his own citizens, and on Saturday alone at least 30 people lost their lives. Although Annan has pledged that UN peacekeepers would be deployed in Syria as soon as the gunfire subsides – there is no indication at the moment that the Syrian army is prepared to hold its fire. At present, even humanitarian missions are unable to reach those in need.

The Arab League's plan for a political solution has been scoffed at by Assad from the it was conceived, and the League's resolutions on Friday only strengthened the Syrian opposition's sense that there is currently no Arab or international body ready to adopt a policy of military intervention to put a stop to Assad's actions.

The fact that no representative from the Syrian opposition was invited to speak at the Arab League summit – and in doing so, denied international recognition of the largest political opposition body in Syria – only serves to show that no one really thinks Assad's regime is in danger. On Saturday, Clinton expressed her doubts over Assad's ability to maintain power, yet she added that the issue will be discussed on Sunday in Istanbul. Clinton is also well aware that without an alternative regime to take hold of power, any suggestions of a regime-change in Syria are unrealistic. Such an alternative leadership is impossible to put into place as long as bitter divisions remain within the ranks of Assad's rivals – particularly the discord between the Syrian-based opposition and the opposition outside the country.

One leaser who has excelled in reading the political map is head of Hezbollah Hassan Nasrallah. On Thursday, Nasrallah said that "The issue of bringing down the [Syrian] regime through a military option is over," he said, warning that military intervention in Syria might lead to a regional war." Nasrallah also added that "the armed opposition is unable to topple the regime. This matter is clear."

It seems that doubts over the possibility of Assad's downfall are not limited to Hezbollah or Iran. As long as the U.S. objects to Saudi Arabia and Qatar's calls to arm the opposition; as long as the Syrian opposition fails to consolidate a united front; and as long as Turkey prevents weapon shipments from its territory – Assad will not be forced to start thinking about political asylum for his family and him.

The conference in Istanbul might at the most adopt Annan's plan and call for humanitarian access, but the participants still lack the means to convince Assad to agree to any resolutions. Clinton made this point clear when she lamented on Saturday the absence of China and Russia from Sunday's Istanbul conference. Without Moscow and Beijing's pressure and influence over Damascus, the West and Arab countries will be left with nothing but useless chatter.