Nations offer help to rebels in Syria

Arabs pledge $100m for fighters’ salaries; US to supply gear to aid insurgents

Murad Sezer/Reuters
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was among world leaders and officials who met in Turkey to discuss supplying help for opposition forces fighting the government of Syria’s president, Bashar Assad.

ISTANBUL - The United States and dozens of other countries moved closer Sunday to direct intervention in the fighting in Syria, with Arab nations pledging $100 million to pay opposition fighters and the Obama administration agreeing to send communications equipment to help rebels organize and evade Syria’s military.

The moves reflected a consensus, at least among the officials who met here this weekend, that mediation efforts by the UN peace envoy, Kofi Annan, had failed to halt violence in Syria and that more forceful action was needed.

With Russia and China blocking measures that could open the way for military action by the United Nations, the countries lined up against the government of President Bashar Assad have sought to bolster Syria’s beleaguered opposition through means that seemed to stretch the definition of humanitarian assistance.

The offer to provide salaries and communications equipment to rebel fighters called the Free Syrian Army - with the hopes that the money might encourage government soldiers to defect, officials said - is bringing the loose “Friends of Syria’’ coalition to the edge of a proxy war against Assad’s government and its international supporters, principally Iran and Russia.

Direct assistance to the rebel fighters, even as Assad’s loyalists press on with a brutal crackdown, risked worsening a conflict that has already led to about 9,000 deaths and could plunge Syria into a protracted civil war.

“We would like to see a stronger Free Syrian Army,’’ Burhan Ghalioun, the leader of the Syrian National Council, a loose affiliation of exiled opposition leaders, told hundreds of world leaders and other officials gathered in Turkey. “All of these responsibilities should be borne by the international community.’’

Ghalioun did not directly address the financial assistance from the Arab countries - including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates - but he added, “This is high noon for action.’’

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told the conference that Assad had defied Annan’s efforts to broker an end to the fighting and begin a political transition. She said that new assaults began in Idlib and Aleppo provinces even after Assad publicly accepted the plan a week ago, which called for an immediate cease-fire followed by talks with the opposition.

“The world must judge Assad by what he does, not by what he says,’’ Clinton said in a statement to officials. “And we cannot sit back and wait any longer.’’

Since the Assad government pledged to respect a cease-fire, there have been daily reports of violence, including the shelling Sunday of the Khalidiyeh neighborhood in Homs and other areas of the city. Activists said the attacks killed more than two dozen people, the Associated Press reported.

Clashes were also reported in many areas of the Damascus suburbs, and activists reported government troops firing with heavy machine guns on several areas of the southern province of Daraa. The Local Coordinating Committees, a coalition of activist groups in Syria, claimed that 18 people had been summarily executed by government forces in the province.

Annan is scheduled to report Monday to the UN Security Council on the status of his peace plan.

The question of arming the rebels - as countries like Saudi Arabia and some members of Congress have called for - remains divisive because of the uncertainty of who exactly would receive them. Paying salaries to fighters blurs the line between lethal and nonlethal support. It was not clear whether the coalition would try to prevent the diversion of money to weapons purchases.

Molham Al Drobi, a member of the Syrian National Council, said that the opposition had pledges of $176 million in humanitarian aid and $100 million in salaries during three months for the fighters inside Syria. He said some money was already flowing to the fighters, including $500,000 last week through “a mechanism that I cannot disclose now.’’

He expressed dismay that the international community was not doing more to provide weapons that might even the odds against the Syrian government’s security forces. “Our people are killed in the streets,’’ he said on the sidelines of the conference. “If the international community prefers not to do it themselves, they should at least help us doing it by giving us the green light, by providing us the arms, or anything else that needs to be done.’’

Even so, as the fighting in Syria drags into a second year, the international involvement on behalf of Syria’s rebels - inside and outside the country - appears to be deepening.

Clinton announced an additional $12 million in humanitarian assistance for international agencies aiding the Syrians, bringing America’s total so far to $25 million, according to the US State Department.

She also confirmed for the first time that the United States was providing satellite communications equipment to help those inside Syria “organize, evade attacks by the regime,’’ and stay in contact with the outside world. And according to the Syrian National Council, the US assistance will include night-vision goggles.

“We are discussing with our international partners how best to expand this support,’’ she said.

The State Department’s goals for the meeting in Istanbul reflected the constraints facing the United States and other nations without broader international support for military intervention like that in Libya last year. Proposals to create buffer zones and humanitarian corridors have garnered little support, in part because of the lack of UN authorization and logistical difficulties.

The countries providing most of the money for salaries - Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates - have long been the fiercest opponents of Assad’s rule, reflecting the sectarian split in the Arab world between Sunnis and Shi’ites. Assad and his inner circle are Alawites, a Shi’ite minority offshoot in Syria that has nonetheless led political and economic life in a country with a majority Sunni population, as well as Christian and other smaller sectarian groups.

Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the host of Sunday’s meeting, urged the UN Security Council to act in the wake of Annan’s efforts, saying Syria’s leaders were using the initiative to buy time. “If the Security Council hesitates, there will be no option left except to support the legitimate right of the Syrian people to defend themselves.’’