- Associated Press - Sunday, April 1, 2012

ISTANBUL (AP) — An international coalition said Sunday that it will provide funding and communications equipment to Syrian rebels and opposition activists, reflecting a shift toward military options that might oust Syrian President Bashar Assad after a year of failed diplomacy aimed at stopping his crackdown on dissent.

Participants at a meeting on Syria, held in Istanbul, said 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 Mr. Assad’s army.

In addition, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the United States is providing communications equipment to help opposition members in Syria organize, 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 to help Syria’s badly overmatched rebels offers a solution to the international divide over whether to arm the rebels or support them through only nonlethal or humanitarian means. It also reflects frustration with appeals to Mr. Assad to stop his crackdown on dissent, as well as hopes of forcing his ouster by shifting the military balance on the ground.

Conference participants confirmed the Gulf plan on condition of anonymity because details were still being worked out. It was unclear how the fund would be set up and monitored or how the money, allegedly earmarked for salaries, would be guaranteed. A participant said the fund would involve millions of dollars every month.

Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf states have proposed giving weapons to the rebels, while the U.S. and other allies, including Turkey, have balked out of fear of fueling an all-out civil war. Washington hasn’t taken any public position on the fund, but it appears that it has given tacit support to its Arab allies.

The salaries would aim to entice reluctant servicemen in Mr. Assad’s military to break ranks and join the insurgency. With Syria’s economy in a spiral, the Syrian opposition and U.S. and Arab officials hope soldiers will desert in large numbers and accelerate the downfall of the Assad regime.

At the meeting in Istanbul, delegates from dozens of countries also sought to increase pressure on Mr. 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 was marred by the absence of China, Russia and Iran — key supporters of Mr. Assad who disagree with Western and Arab allies over how to stop the bloodshed. A peace plan by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the U.N.-Arab League envoy to Syria, so far has failed to take hold amid fresh reports of deadly violence.

“The Syrian regime should not be allowed at any cost to manipulate this plan to gain time,” Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in an opening address.

Mr. Erdogan also indicated military options might have to be considered if Syria does not cooperate with Mr. Annan’s plan and the U.N. Security Council fails to unite in opposition to Mr. Assad. He referred to the vetoes of U.N. censure of Mr. Assad by Russia and China, which fear the measures could lead to foreign military intervention.

“If the U.N. Security Council fails once again to bring about its historic responsibility, there will be no other choice than to support the Syrian people’s right to self-defense,” Mr. Erdogan said.

Mrs. Clinton also expressed skepticism that the Syrian government would observe Mr. Annan’s plans, which call for an immediate cease-fire and a Syrian-led negotiation process.

“Nearly a week has gone by, and we have to conclude that the regime is adding to its long list of broken promises,” Mrs. Clinton said. “The world must judge Assad by what he does, not by what he says. And we cannot sit back and wait any longer.”

Story Continues →