An international coalition including the United States, the United Kingdom and several Arab states, has pledged to send millions of dollars in aid and equipment to Syria’s opposition groups, signalling a deeper international involvement in the conflict there.
In a communique issued after a meeting of the “Friends of the Syrian People” group in Istanbul on Sunday, world leaders called on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to immediately comply with an earlier promise to abide by a United Nations-Arab League peace plan.
Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states, meanwhile, have pledged to set up a multi-million dollar fund to pay members of the armed opposition, known as the “Free Syrian Army”, a move aimed at encouraging defections from the ranks of the Syrian armed forces.
One delegate at the one-day meeting of representatives from 83 countries described the fund as a “pot of gold” to undermine Assad’s army.
Participants confirmed the Gulf plan on condition of anonymity because details had not been not finalised.
One said the fund would involve several million dollars a month being earmarked for salaries, but it was not clear whether there would be any effort to prevent the diversion of money to weapons purchases, a sensitive issue that could prompt accusations of military meddling by foreign powers.
The international coalition, however, made no commitment to such a fund, saying only that it would “continue to work on additional appropriate measures with a view to the protection of the Syrian people”.
Mohammed al-Said, a Syrian activist in the town of Douma, northwest of Damascus, said salaries might encourage further defections, but that only arms would turn the tide against Assad.
“What is clear to us is that only fighting can make this regime leave,” he said via Skype, adding the opposition wanted arms more than military intervention so they could topple Assad themselves.
The plan to arm the rebels has not met with universal approval from Arab states. Iraq has said Arab nations should not arm or financially assist the armed opposition in Syria, asserting that doing so would only make the conflict worse.
Speaking in Baghdad, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki said: “We reject any arming of the opposition, we reject attempts to bring down the regime by force, because it will leave a wider crisis in the region.”
Opposition group recognised
Delegates at the Istanbul conference also formally recognised the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) as a legitimate representative of Syrians, and “noted” that it was the main opposition interlocutor for the international community.
At the conference, the SNC said that weapons supplies to the opposition were not “our preferred option” because of the risk they could escalate the killing of civilians, but it appealed for technical equipment to help rebels co-ordinate their uprising against the Syrian government.
“For these supplies to be sent, neighbouring countries need to allow for the transfer via their sea ports and across borders,” the council said in a statement.
The United States and its allies have previously stopped short of publically supporting the arming of the Syrian rebels, but Washington has so far not taken a public stance on the proposed Gulf fund.
Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, said her government was supplying “communications equipment that will help activists organise, evade attacks by the regime and connect to the outside world” and was “discussing with other nations how best to expand this support”.
The US and Germany pledged a combined $19.6 million in additional humanitarian contributions at the conference.
Turkey, which currently hosts about 20,000 Syrian refugees and hundreds of army defectors, used the conference to float the idea of setting up a “buffer zone” inside Syria if the flow of people across its border becomes overwhelming.
Parts of southern Turkey are currently being used as informal logistics bases for Syrian rebels, who collect food and other supplies in Turkey and then deliver them to their allies across the border.
Burhan Ghalioun, leader of the SNC, called for the strengthening of Syrian rebel forces as well as “security corridors” in 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 failed to agree on such an intervention, which could involve the deployment of foreign security forces.
Al Jazeera’s Anita McNaught, reporting from Istanbul, said the meeting was marked by a “remarkable change of tone”.
“Hillary Clinton made a very strong statement and intriguing promises. The key phrase from her was that there is no more time for excuses or delays. Today’s meeting was a moment of truth,” McNaught said.
Assad has accepted, but not yet implemented, the six-point plan presented by joint UN-Arab League Envoy Kofi Annan, which calls for the military and armed opposition to cease fire, withdraw from towns and cities, and allow humanitarian access.
In Istanbul, world leaders called on Annan to set a timetable for action should the violence continue.
Annan is due to brief the UN Security Council on Monday about whether he has seen any progress towards implementing his proposals.
The Syrian government, meanwhile, blasted the conference, calling it part of an international conspiracy to kill Syrians and weaken the country.
A front-page editorial in the official al-Baath newspaper called it a “regional and international scramble to search for ways to kill more Syrians, sabotage their society and state, and move toward the broad objective of weakening Syria”.
The show of solidarity at the conference was marred by the absence of China, Russia and Iran.
In a statement on Monday, the Russian foreign ministry rejected the Istanbul meet’s outcomes.
“The promises and intentions to deliver direct military and logistical support to the armed… opposition that were voiced in Istanbul unquestionably contradict the goals of a peaceful settlement to the civil conflict in Syria,” the ministry said in a statement.
Assad’s government is battling a year-long uprising and has been criticised for a violent crackdown on dissent that has claimed the lives of more than 9,000 people, according to UN estimates. The crackdown prompted the opposition to take up arms, further escalating the conflict.