Gulf countries promise Syrian rebels equipment and millions of dollars

Pro-Assad supporters react after riot police sprayed tear gas
Pro-Assad supporters react after riot police sprayed tear gas
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tHE coalition of countries supporting the Syrian opposition pledged several million dollars and communications equipment for rebels and activists at an international summit yesterday.

Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries are creating a multimillion-dollar fund to pay members of the rebel Free Syrian Army and soldiers who defect from the regime and join opposition ranks.

One delegate described the fund as a “pot of gold” to undermine Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s army.

US secretary of state Hillary Clinton said the United States is providing communications equipment to help opposition members in Syria to organise their efforts, remain in contact with the outside world and evade regime attacks.

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

The large-scale plan by Gulf countries offers a solution to the international divide over whether to arm the rebels or support them through humanitarian means. It also reflects frustration with appeals to Assad to stop his crackdown on dissent, as well as hopes of forcing him out by shifting the military balance on the ground. Delegates from dozens of countries also sought to increase pressure on Assad by pushing for tighter sanctions and increased diplomatic pressure, while urging the opposition to offer a democratic alternative to his regime.

Yet the show of solidarity at the “Friends of the Syrian People” conference in Istanbul was marred by the absence of China, Russia and Iran – key supporters of Assad who disagree with Western and Arab allies over how to stop the bloodshed. A peace plan by United Nations Arab League envoy Kofi Annan has so far failed to take hold amid fresh reports of violence.

Burhan Ghalioun, leader of the opposition Syrian National Council, called for the strengthening of Syrian rebel forces as well as “security corridors” inside Syria, a reference to internationally protected zones on Syrian territory that would allow the delivery of aid to civilians.

However, the nations meeting in Istanbul have so far failed to agree on such an intervention, which could involve the risky deployment of foreign security forces.

Mr Ghalioun reflected fears that Assad would try to use the UN plan to prolong his tenure. He said: “No-one should allow this regime to feel at ease or to feel stronger by giving them a longer manoeuvering area.

“It’s enough that the international community has flirted with the regime in Syria. Something has to change.”

The one-day meeting followed an inaugural forum in Tunisia in February. Since then, Syrian opposition figures have tried to convince international sponsors that they can overcome their differences and shape the future of a country whose autocratic regime has long denied the free exchange of ideas. Syria blasted the conference, calling it part of an international conspiracy to kill Syrians and weaken the country.

In Istanbul, police used tear gas and batons to disperse a group of about 40 Assad supporters who tried to approach the conference building. Many held portraits of the Syrian leader. One man waved Chinese and Russian flags.