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France warns that Syria could succumb to extremists

Rebels plead for more help from nations

BEIRUT — Syrian opposition leaders pleaded Monday for funds and political backing from the international community as France warned that extremists could prevail in Syria if nations fail to honor their pledges of support.

The warning from Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius reflects growing concern over the rising power of Islamic militant groups that have joined the rebels fighting to topple the regime of President Bashar Assad of Syria.

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‘‘Let us be clear. In the face of the collapse of a state and society, it is the extremist groups that risk gaining ground if we do not act as we should,’’ Fabius told envoys from more than 50 nations gathered in Paris. ‘‘Chaos is not tomorrow, it is today, and we need to end it. We need to end it in a peaceful way and that means increased and concrete support to the Syrian National Coalition,’’ an umbrella group for the opposition.

Islamic militants have been the most organized fighters battling government troops in the 22-month-old conflict in which about 60,000 people have been killed.

Their growing prominence has fueled fears that Muslim radicals might try to hijack the revolt and has contributed to the West’s hesitance to equip the opposition with sophisticated weapons.

The opposition coalition was formed in November, largely in response to a call by the West for the fragmented Syrian opposition to unite. More than 100 countries have backed the umbrella group, decreeing it the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

France was the first to confer that recognition.

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The coalition replaced an early opposition grouping of exiled Syrians, whose credibility was compromised by infighting and criticism that they were out of touch with the Syrians fighting the Assad regime.

But members of the Syrian opposition lament that beyond the verbal recognition, very little aid has trickled in since the group was formed.

More than $100 million was promised at the Friends of Syria group’s conference in December in Morocco, but it is unclear how much has been sent.

France, which has spearheaded the formation of a viable opposition in exile, wants to make sure that promised support actually materializes.

‘‘We have to give the Syrian people a clear signal: We are at your side,’’ Fabius said. ‘‘If we don’t give the means to the Syrian people to go achieve their freedom, there is a risk, and we all know it exists, that massacres and antagonisms amplify, and that extremism and terrorism prevail.’’

The most dominant of the extremist groups is Jabhat al-Nusra. The United States has declared it a terrorist organization, alleging it has ties to Al Qaeda.

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