Friday, December 15, 2017

U.S., other nations pledge $100M, communications aid to Syrian rebels

ISTANBUL, TURKEY — The United States and dozens of other countries moved closer on 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, according to participants gathered here.

The moves reflected a growing consensus, at least among the officials who met here this weekend under the rubric "Friends of Syria," that mediation efforts by the United Nations peace envoy, Kofi Annan, were failing to halt the violence that is heading into its second year in Syria and that more forceful action was needed.

With Russia and China blocking U.N. measures that could open the way for military action, the countries lined up against the government of President Bashar Assad sought to bolster Syria's beleaguered opposition through means that seemed to stretch the definition of humanitarian assistance and blur the line between so-called lethal and nonlethal support.

There remains no agreement on arming the rebels, as countries like Saudi Arabia and some members of Congress have called for, largely because of the uncertainty regarding who exactly would receive the arms.

Still, the offer to provide salaries and communications equipment to rebel fighters known as 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.

The assistance to the rebel fighters as Assad's loyalists press on with a brutal crackdown could worsen a conflict that has already led to at least 9,000 deaths and is increasingly showing signs of descending into a sectarian civil war. Some say that enabling the uprising to succeed is now the best bet to end the instability and carnage sooner.

"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 here. "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."

But for some inside Syria, the absence of promises of arms far overshadowed the financial and communications aid. Mohamed Moaz, an activist in the Damascus suburbs who coordinates with rebel fighters, held Ghalioun responsible for failing to unify the gathered nations on sending arms, calling him "a partner with the regime in these crimes."

"I'm the only one who watched this conference in our neighborhood, because there was no electricity and people don't care," he said. "I only watched it because Al Jazeera wanted my comment."

At the conference, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that Assad had defied Annan's efforts to broker an end to the fighting and begin a political transition. She said that new assaults had begun in Idlib and Aleppo provinces in the week since Assad publicly accepted the plan. It does not call for him to step down, but rather for an immediate cease-fire followed by negotiations with the opposition.

"The world must judge Assad by what he does, not by what he says," Clinton said in a statement to officials who sat around an enormous rectangular table the size of a basketball court. "And we cannot sit back and wait any longer."

Molham al-Drobi, a member of the Syrian National Council, said that the opposition had pledges of $176 million in humanitarian assistance and $100 million in salaries over three months for the fighters inside Syria. Some money was already flowing to the fighters, he said, including $500,000 last week through "a mechanism that I cannot disclose now."

He expressed dismay on the lack of more material help in halting the onslaught by Syrian 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."

Clinton announced an additional $12 million in humanitarian assistance for international organizations aiding the Syrians, bringing the American total so far to $25 million, according to the 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 American assistance will include night-vision goggles.

"We are discussing with our international partners how best to expand this support," Clinton said.

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 Shiites. Assad and his inner circle are Alawites, a Shiite minority offshoot that has nonetheless dominated political and economic life in Syria, despite its majority Sunni population. It also has Christian and other smaller sectarian groups.

Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the host of Sunday's meeting, called on the U.N. Security Council to act, saying Syria's government was using its ostensible embrace of Annan's 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," he said. Annan is scheduled to brief the council's 15 members in New York today.

Violence continued on Sunday, with shelling in the city of Homs for what activists said was the 21st consecutive day. Clashes were reported in many areas of the Damascus suburbs.

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