Arab states agree to provide millions to pay opposition fighters in Syria


Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan shakes hands with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton during a meeting of foreign ministers from dozens of countries gathered to set conditions for a new Syria. (Yasin Bulbul/Turkish Prime Minister's Press Service via Associated Press)

Arab states in the Persian Gulf have agreed to provide a monthly stipend of several million dollars to pay a “salary” to opposition fighters in Syria and encourage more defections from President Bashar al-Assad’s army, participants at an international conference on the Syrian crisis said Sunday.

The money is the first formal international support for the rebels, and officials attending the Friends of Syria conference said the substantial funds would also likely be used to purchase weapons on the black market for the rebel Free Syria Army.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton also announced that the United States would contribute an additional $12.2 million for humanitarian aid to Syria, bringing the U.S. total since the uprising began to $25 million, as well as “communications equipment” to “help activists organize, evade attacks by the regime, and connect to the outside world.”

Foreign ministers and other top officials from more than 80 nations and international organizations gathered here for a Friends of Syria meeting publicly warned Assad that he has little time left to comply with demands he stop his year-long slaughter of his own citizens. In private, the officials debated what their governments will do if, as expected, Assad does not stop.

“The window of opportunity. . .is not open-ended,” the group said in a statement issued at the close of the meeting. It suggested “a return to the United Nations Security Council, if the killing continues.”

Despite Assad’s agreement more than a week ago to order his troops to stop attacking civilians, to allow the safe passage of humanitarian aid and to begin negotiations for a government transition, the statement said, the regime’s abuses “continue unabated.”

Kofi Annan, the U.N. and Arab League envoy who met with Assad, is due to deliver a status report to the Security Council on Monday, and the statement directed him to “determine a timeline for next steps. . .if the killing continues.” Influential participants in the Friends group indicated that the timeline would constitute a deadline, perhaps a matter of weeks, for Assad’s compliance.

What the statement called the regime’s attempt to “manipulate” and “deceive the international community“ seemed to have generated a new level of resolve among countries, including the United States, that have long insisted Assad must step aside.

Speaker after speaker at the conference vowed what its host, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Recep Erdogan, called “determined and committed” action, even as the problems and proposals that emerged seemed little different than when the Friends last met a month ago in Tunisia.

Clinton said at a news conference that “there is no more time for excuses or delay. This is the moment of truth.”

There is still little international appetite for a full-scale military intervention. But officials from several countries described consensus on a range of escalating steps to pressure the regime, aid opposition fighters and ensure that humanitarian assistance reaches the Syrian people.

Asked if his government’s resistance to allowing establishment of a protected “safe zone” for the opposition along its lengthy border with Syria had lessened, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davotoglu said “we will see what happens during these days, especially regarding the mission of Kofi Annan, and later we will look at all alternatives.”

“I am saying all alternatives,” Davotoglu repeated.

Both the new U.S. aid and the Arab funds, contributed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, are to be distributed through the opposition Syrian National Congress. The umbrella political group has struggled, despite extensive international tutelage, to gain leadership acceptance by rebel fighters and Syrian ethnic and religious minorities including Shiites, Christians and Kurds.

Minorities have expressed concern over SNC dominance by Syria’s majority Sunnis and the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. Several minority representatives walked out of an SNC-organized opposition meeting held last week in Turkey, charging a lack of both transparency and democracy within the group.

The new Arab contribution was not publicly announced at the conference, but SNC President Burhan Ghalion referred to it indirectly, saying that “the SNC will take charge of the payment of fixed salaries of all officers, soldiers and others who are members of the Free Syrian Army.”

In an impassioned speech, Ghalioun appealed to all international supporters to give Syrians “the means to defend themselves,” and said that their liberation struggle was “moving into a new phase.”

In the wake of last week’s opposition meeting, the SNC has formed a “restructuring committee,” designed to increase the transparency of its deliberations.

At the same time, the Obama administration and others appear to have taken a more indirect approach to their support for the SNC, calling for all Syrians to unite around what a senior State Department official called “a concept and a vision going forward” rather than a specific group.

The Friends also agreed on several new initiatives, including formation of a working group to coordinate sanctions imposed by the United States and others against Assad and his government. The State Department official said the group would be a “clearing house of information on who is shipping arms, money to Assad to assist him in his killing, who is evading sanctions.”

A separate “accountability” program would train Syrians to collect information on government atrocities, to be used by a future Syrian government eventually to hold Assad and other officials responsible in international or domestic courts.

Staff writer Alice Fordham contributed to this report from Beirut.

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