"Friends of Syria" to call for U.N. peacekeepers

A Palestinian student is covered by a Syrian flag during a demonstration against Syria's President Bashar Assad and his regime, at the Unknown Soldier Square in Gaza City, Feb. 21, 2012. Some 500 Palestinians gathered in a Hamas-authorized demonstration in solidarity with Syrian protesters.
AP Photo/Adel Hana

Last Updated 9:55 a.m. ET

TUNIS, Tunisia - The nations that make up the Friends of Syria group will call Friday for the United Nations to begin planning a Syria peacekeeping mission once the regime agrees to a cease-fire, a senior diplomat said Friday.

The United States, European and Arab nations were set Friday to demand that Syrian President Bashar Assad agree to an immediate cease-fire and allow humanitarian aid into areas hardest hit by his regime's brutal crackdown on opponents, or face as-yet unspecified punishments and an increasingly emboldened and powerful armed resistance.

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Assuming he agrees now, after ignoring numerous similar demands, the UN would then send in a peacekeeping force with the permission of the ruling authority in Syria, whether it is Assad or a successor. The Friends of Syria, meeting Friday in Tunisia, have no more leverage than in previous attempts, either as individual nations or through the United Nations, to make Assad leave. But the diplomat said the demand by the nearly 70 nations involved in the group will simply increase pressure on Assad to see that his demise is inevitable.

The language in the statement will allow UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to begin recruiting nations to join the peacekeeping force, billed as a non-military operation, and start identifying its mandate.

The plan is also designed to signal Russia and China, the two nations that have consistently opposed any foreign intervention in Syria, that their continued support of Assad could leave them out of business and diplomatic opportunities in what the group hopes will be a new Syria.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague described the Syrian government as a "criminal regime" as he arrived at the conference and said he was meeting with the opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Council, boosting their stature.

"We will also intensify our links with the opposition," he said. "We will treat them and recognize them as a legitimate representative of the Syrian people."

"I hope those countries will take note of this strength of international feeling and support that we are seeing here in Tunis," Hague said about Russia and China. "There are more than 60 countries coming together, because it means that they are increasingly isolated in their views."

Alexei Pushkov, a Russian lawmaker, said Friday after meeting Assad that the Syrian president sounded confident and demonstrated no sign he would he step aside. Pushkov warned that arming the Syrian opposition would fuel civil war.

For their part, the Syrian National Council has welcomed the conference as part of their call for a peaceful transition to a democratic regime.

"This conference will help the Syrian people, the revolutionaries, I think; they will give us the power as a national council, a political umbrella for the revolution inside Syria," said Haithem al-Maleh, executive director of the group.

As the conference began Friday, about 200 pro-Syrian demonstrators tried to storm the hotel. The protest forced Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to be diverted to her hotel, delaying her appearance.

The protesters, waving Syrian and Tunisian flags, tussled with police and carried signs criticizing Clinton and President Barack Obama. They were driven out of the parking lot by police after about 15 minutes.