US Boosting Aid To Opposition As 'Friends Of Syria' Meet
The United States vowed to nearly double its funding to the Syrian opposition, and Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan promised the Syrian people "they will not be left alone" as world leaders met in Istanbul Sunday to discuss ways to ramp up pressure on President Bashar al-Assad.
The "Friends of Syria" conference stepped up pressure on the Assad regime but stopped short of arming rebels or fully recognizing an opposition council.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported at least 41 people killed across Syria Sunday, including five in bombardment of opposition districts in Homs.
In a final communique, the 83-nation Friends of Syria group said Assad did not have an open-ended opportunity to meet his commitments to mediator Kofi Annan, who is acting for the United Nations and Arab League, Reuters reported.
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"The regime will be judged by its deeds rather than its promises," the communique said. Security Council members China and Russia and Syria's ally Iran were among countries that stayed away from the conference in Istanbul.
Assad has accepted, but not yet implemented, Annan's six-point peace plan, which calls for the military to cease fire, withdraw from towns and cities, and allow humanitarian access.
"We will not let the Syrian regime misuse another opportunity, which is the last chance for the situation in Syria," Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told a news conference after the meeting he hosted.
The Friends of Syria recognized the opposition Syrian National Council as a legitimate representative of all Syrians, and "noted" it as the main opposition interlocutor with the international community, wording that fell short of full recognition of a group hampered by chronic disunity.
The group made no mention of supporting or arming the rebel Free Syrian Army, as advocated by some Gulf Arab states, but said it would "continue to work on additional appropriate measures with a view to the protection of the Syrian people".
Hardline Gulf states are likely to interpret the phrase as a license to fund, if not arm, the FSA, while the United States and others will see it as allowing supplies of non-lethal equipment to the loosely organized armed opposition to Assad.
Violence continued in Syria even as the Friends of Syria conference took place, and a Syrian opposition leader called on the international community to do more, CNN reported.
Aid worth about $30 million "is not enough," said Asib Shishakly of the Syrian National Council. "We know we have over a million people in need of aid. A million dollars daily minimum is needed."
"If we don't bring protection for the people inside Syria, it's like we didn't do anything," he said, calling for international support of the FSA, safe zones to protect people, and relief and medical support.
The FSA said Saturday it would stop shooting if Assad pulled heavy weaponry out of urban areas, but Damascus said its forces must stay to maintain security.
Shishakly warned that the opposition could not hold out forever if Assad did not make good soon on his promise to accept a peace plan from former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
"We cannot keep this thing going," he said. "So if we give a chance to the regime and we don't give a deadline to the Annan mission, then we're giving the Assad regime a chance to commit more killing, more torture."
The SNC is also asking the international community for funds to pay fighters in the opposition Free Syrian Army.
The cost of the program is expected to be in the millions of dollars, conference participants said, with one of them adding that this could, in fact, increase the rate of defections which, in turn, could "contribute to the demoralization of the regime."
At the end of its conference on Sunday the Friends of Syria group recognized the SNC as a legitimate representative of the Syrian people, effectively declaring it the main opposition group the international community would work with.
The 83-member group also declared its "support for legitimate measures taken by the Syrian population to protect themselves" and called on Syrian forces not to obey "unlawful orders targeting the Syrian people."
"People are dying in Syria and there are residential neighborhoods under siege," Turkish leader Erdogan said.
Gunfire and explosions rocked the country even as the conference was taking place, with blasts killing at least nine people in the Daraa governorate, according to the opposition Local Coordination Committees in Syria.
In the suburbs of Damascus, explosions and gunfire erupted Sunday morning, the opposition activists said. Snipers targeted moving objects as security forces deployed tanks at various checkpoints, according to the group.
Speaking in Istanbul, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced an additional $12 million in U.S. aid to the Syrian opposition, nearly doubling the amount of American money pledged for humanitarian aid including field hospitals and medical training. She also said the United States was providing communications gear and other aid to Syria's civilian opposition, Reuters reported.
In a strongly-worded speech, Clinton accused Assad's troops of launching new assaults, tightening their siege of residential neighborhoods and crushing dozens of peaceful protests.
She said Assad was "adding to his long list of broken promises" by failing to implement the Annan peace plan.
The Friends of Syria group will work on coordinating sanctions against Syria "to isolate this regime, cut off its funds, and squeeze its ability to wage war on its own people," she said.
She said the message was clear: "Stop killing your fellow citizens or you will face serious consequences."
There was no mention of authorizing airstrikes targeting Syrian forces as some, such as U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., have requested.
A Western diplomat told Reuters the Friends of Syria would declare support for Annan's mission, but stress it cannot be open-ended.
The diplomat said their communiqué would promise additional measures to protect the Syrian people, and say the U.N. Security Council, where Russia and China have twice blocked resolutions on Syria, should play an important role in ending the conflict.
"The wording is constructively ambiguous," the diplomat said.
Syrian State TV carried some of the Istanbul speeches live, labeling the meeting the "Conference of the enemies of Syria."
"It is great that the conference is taking place on April 1 because it is April Fools' Day," the Syrian news anchor said, accusing the attendees of serving Israeli interests and Erdogan of carrying out Clinton's bidding.
Around 50 Assad supporters protested outside the Istanbul conference, waving Syrian, Russian and Chinese flags and brandishing pictures of the Syrian leader. "Allah, Syria, Bashar, that's it" and "Down, down USA" they chanted, before police removed them.
Chris Phillips, a Middle East expert at the University of London, said the Istanbul meeting had produced little.
"It's another damp squib from the international community, reflecting the fact that their hands are tied," he told Reuters, citing divisions over arming the rebels between the West and Arab League hawks such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
"They have a very limited amount of leverage that they can place on the Assad regime," Phillips said, noting that the group's endorsement of Annan's plan had effectively dropped previous Arab and Western demands for Assad's removal.
Annan will brief the U.N. Security Council on Monday.
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