Splits in 'Friends of Syria' group may help embattled leader Assad

There was a moment at the State Department's daily briefing Wednesday when spokeswoman Victoria Nuland referred to the "Friends of Syria" group as "Friends of the Syrian People." Asked why, she said the organizers of the group's summit April 1 in Istanbul, Turkey, preferred the new name.

That such a trivial matter would even be discussed against the backdrop of the continuing slaughter in Syria is instructive. Indeed, it may be one of the few points of agreement for the more than 60 nations that will attend the upcoming gathering - which skeptics note will take place on April Fools’ Day.

The United States and others created the group in a bid to bypass Russia and install a united front against the Assad regime, after that country and China vetoed two efforts in the United Nations Security Council to push through a meaningful resolution against the regime of Syrian leader Bashar Al Assad.

Yet questions about the group’s effectiveness are growing amid reports of splits with Washington over what approach to take.

The U.S. is openly backing the recently announced six-point plan by Kofi Annan, the UN/Arab League envoy to Syria.

It seeking an end to the violence, the plan calls for the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people to be addressed, an immediate halt to troop movements, a daily two-hour pause in the fighting for humanitarian aid, the release of arbitrarily detained prisoners, guarantees of freedom of movement for journalists and respect for the right to peacefully demonstrate.

But Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, says U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar appear to have stepped out in front of Obama administration by pushing for "robust action."

Divisions were already apparent during the first Friends of Syria meeting in Tunisia last month, when Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal walked out, complaining that not enough was being done to stop the Syrian government from killing its citizens.

The Saudis have publicly supported the idea of arming of the Syrian opposition, and some sources say they have quietly begun sending weapons to the rebels. Qatar has also spoken out in favor of arming the Syrian rebels.

Ali Al-Ahmed, a Saudi scholar and director of the Gulf Institute in Washington, D.C., told Fox News that he didn't feel the upcoming Friends of Syria meeting was "going to be much different from the first one,” adding, “realities on the ground are now more favorable to the Syrian regime than they were a month ago."

He said that following the first meeting, the "Saudis were very angry and felt betrayed by the U.S."

Al-Ahmed told Fox News he thinks Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will use her bilateral meetings with the Saudis before Sunday’s Friends of Syria summit to warn them off arming the Syrian rebels and to ask them to give the Annan plan more time ahead of any unilateral action they might take.

Ahmed predicted the Saudis would take a "harsher tone against Syria" once the Istanbul Friends of Syria meeting concludes.

According to Ahmed, the meeting’s outcome is unlikely to be to "Saudi satisfaction, as its positions are diverging from the U.S. on the whole Syria question."

That tension was also clear at Thursday’s Arab League summit in Iraq where Saudi Arabia and Qatar sent low-level officials to the gathering. Analysts say this signaled that the Saudis and like-minded Gulf states were losing confidence in the diplomatic efforts.

Turkey, as host of the "Friends of the Syrian People" conference, also has been pushing for a more muscular approach in trying to defeat the Assad regime. Unlike the Saudis, however, the Turks appear to be toeing the Obama administration line - at least for now.

Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute, offered a different take on any split between the U.S. and Turkey. "Ankara and Washington are in a consensus to lead from behind, together," Cagaptay told Fox News.

Cagaptay thinks Ankara’s goal for the Friends of Syria is to have all participant nations fully recognize the Syrian National Council as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

He thinks this, if accomplished, would be a huge victory for Turkey's aim to finish off the Assad regime.

"Accordingly, Ankara would be hosting the internationally recognized representative of the Syrian people; this would cast Turkey as the key player in the efforts to oust Assad," he said.

However, Badran, of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, is among analysts who think the role of the Friends of Syria meeting is diminished.

“Whatever expectations there might have been, they have been essentially undercut by the Obama administration's endorsement of the Annan plan," Badran said.

"The U.S. has made it amply clear that this was the only game in town at the moment and has pressured skeptical allies to fall in line behind it."

Russia and China won't, although invited, be at this Sunday's meeting.