The Tunisian capital, Tunis, is hosting an international conference on Syria, minus Russia and China — two key members of the United Nations Security Council — amid suspicions that the meeting, backed by the West, will seek fresh avenues to remove Bashar al-Assad from the Syrian presidency.

The meeting of the Friends of Syria is taking place outside the fold of the United Nations, where Russia and China have blocked moves to unseat Mr. Assad.

Analysts say the meeting in Tunis resembled a similar effort earlier to form the Libya Contact Group, which played a considerable part in forcing the exit of Muammar Qadhafi, who was eventually executed.

At the conference, the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC), urged participants to allow the group to import weapons and benefit from military support from member countries in order to achieve its political goals. “If the regime fails to accept the terms of the political initiative outlined by the Arab League and end violence against citizens, the Friends of Syria should not constrain individual countries from aiding the Syrian opposition by means of military advisers, training and provision of arms to defend themselves,” it said in a statement.

The conference is expected to designate the SNC as the “legitimate” representative of the opposition, just short of accepting it as a government-in-waiting. Later, the conference, is likely to ask Syria, in the form of a declaration, to announce a ceasefire and permit humanitarian assistance in the areas that are badly engulfed in violence.

Citing their support for the principle of sovereignty, both Russia and China say that the Tunis conference is heading in a direction of achieving “regime change” in Syria. Explaining his government's stand, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Aleksandr Lukashevich said: “The opposition is invited, the legal authorities are not. This means we have here what we had in Libya: a contact group was created. There is a feeling that it all aims at supporting one part in the country's internal conflict.”

Russia Today is quoting from an interview in Damascus with political scientist Balsam Abu Bulla by its correspondent Maria Finoshina, in which the academic has expressed suspicions that the meeting in Tunis is part of a larger game-plan to undermine Syria's core allies — Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hizbollah. “They want a political uprising here in Syria to make the country weak and then go to Iran and Hezbollah. This is a real plan on behalf of democracy and humanitarian aid human rights,” he observed.

As senior leaders from 70 countries headed towards the Tunisian capital, the Russians and the Iranians were, in parallel, confabulating on their next moves to bolster Mr. Assad, who has been facing a seething anti-regime revolt, concentrated in the embattled city of Homs, not far from Syria's border with Lebanon.

In a telephone conversation with Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, was explicit in defining Western motives in Syria. Iran's Fars News Agency (FNA) quoted him as saying that “certain trans-regional powers seek Syria's disintegration which is a threat to Middle East security”.

Mr. Ahmadinejad, on his part, focused on joint activism with Russia on Syria. “Given their common views and positions, Iran and Russia must make more effort to help establish peace in the region and prevent foreign intervention.” The Iranian President, joining Russia and China whose leaders hold similar views, said that the Syrian crisis could end if foreign intervention was stopped, and reforms proposed by the Assad government were adequately enforced.

Russia and Iran appear to be covering considerable common ground on Syria. Both countries have recently sent their warships to the Syrian port of Tartus, to demonstrate their tangible support for Mr. Assad.

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