The United States and more than 60 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 those 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 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 al-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 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 Mr. Assad’s government and its international supporters, principally Iran and Russia.
Don’t miss a beat
Get the latest news and thought-provoking analysis from Truthout.
Direct assistance to the rebel fighters, even as Mr. 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 here. “All of these responsibilities should be borne by the international community.”
Mr. 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 Mr. Assad had defied Mr. 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 Mr. Assad publicly accepted the plan a week ago, which called 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,” Mrs. Clinton said in a statement to officials who sat around an enormous rectangular table the size of a basketball arena. “And we cannot sit back and wait any longer.”
The question of arming the rebels — as countries like Saudi Arabia and some members of Congress have called for — remain divisive because of the uncertainty of who exactly would receive them. Paying salaries to fighters blurs the line between lethal and nonlethal support.
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. He said some money was already flowing into 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.
Mrs. 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.
“We are discussing with our international partners how best to expand this support,” she said.
According to the Syrian National Council, the American assistance will include night-vision goggles.
The countries providing most of the money for salaries — Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates — have long been the fiercest opponents of Mr. Assad’s rule, reflecting the sectarian split in the Arab world between Sunnis and Shiites. Mr. Assad and his inner circle are Alawites, a Shiite minority offshoot in Syria that has nonetheless dominated 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, called on the United Nations Security Council to act in the wake of the failure of Mr. Annan’s efforts, saying Syria’s government was 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.” Mr. Annan is scheduled to brief the council’s 15 members in New York on Monday.
Mr. Erdogan emphasized that Turkey had no intention of interfering in Syria, once a close ally, but that the world could not stand idly by as the opposition withered in a lopsided confrontation with the government’s modern weaponry. “They are not alone,” he thundered. “They will never be alone.”
Mrs. Clinton, in Saudi Arabia the day before, joined the six Arab nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council in demanding that Mr. Annan to establish a timeline for Syria to begin a ceasefire or else for the international community to consider “next steps if the killing continues.”
What those steps might be remains as uncertain as it has been since Mr. Assad’s government began its crackdown on popular dissent more than a year ago.
The State Department’s stated 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 United Nations authorization and logistical difficulties.
The United States and other nations agreed on Sunday to set up a “working group” within the nations gathered here to monitor countries that continue to arm or otherwise support Mr. Assad’s government — “to basically name and shame those entities, individuals, countries, who are evading the sanctions,” as a senior American official put it. They also agreed to support efforts to document acts of violence by Syrian forces that could later be used as evidence in prosecutions, presuming Mr. Assad’s government ultimately falls.
Sebnem Arsu contributed reporting.