Syria 'friends' to pay salaries of rebels fighting Assad

Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations are setting up a fund to pay members of the Free Syrian Army as part of a larger international commitment.

Yasin Bulbul/Prime Minister's Press Office/REUTERS
Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan shakes hands with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during the "Friends of Syria" conference in Istanbul April 1.

The Syrian opposition received one of its biggest boosts yet when the US, Britain, and several Arab nations pledged millions of dollars in support and equipment at a meeting of international supporters in Istanbul yesterday.

One pledge that may prove particularly significant comes from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations that have agreed to set up a fund to pay salaries to the rebel Free Syria Army, Al Jazeera reports. The fund is seen as a means of encouraging more soldiers to defect from government forces and join the rebels.

The fund pushes the international community closer to an intervention in Syria, but it has stopped short of providing direct military assistance. Rebels say the additional funding and supplies will no doubt help, but they have also been outspoken in their need for more weapons and ammunition, without which they say they cannot topple the Syrian regime.

“What is clear to us is that only fighting can make this regime leave,” said Mohammed al-Said, a Syrian activist in Douma, northwest of Damascus in an interview with Al Jazeera.

Aside from salaries for rebel soldiers, the opposition will also receive humanitarian assistance and communications equipment to help them coordinate their actions and evade government attacks. Russia and China have blocked United Nations measures that would create the potential for a military intervention. The New York Times reports that there is also some concern among neighboring Arab countries and Western politicians about who exactly would receive arms if international donors began supplying the rebels.

The increased support by international donors has sparked concerns in Iran, where there is mounting concern there that Syria could become a proxy war in which Iranian rivals like Saudi Arabia strengthen the opposition against Iran's close ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. A news article in Iran’s PressTV described the international pledges with grave suspicion. “Analysts believe Washington’s insistence on funding the rebels signals American blessing for a bid by the Saudi Arabian dictatorship to arm the Syrian opposition, which White House has so far publicly opposed,” wrote PressTV.

So far international efforts have focused primarily on sanctions with additional limited support to Syria. It remains difficult to tell just how such efforts have affected Mr. Assad’s government. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said that sanctions are beginning to have an effect, but in an interview with CNN Rep. Mike Rogers, the head of the House Intelligence Committee, cited US intelligence reports that he said shows Assad’s regime is not “crumbling.”

“Remember, they're having a lot of victory supported by external forces like Iran, like Russia. So they, in their minds, they – this is all a zero-sum game for them. They realize that,” said Rep. Rogers on CNN. “They believe that they're winning ... we certainly believe that, through intelligence collection, they believe they're winning this.”

The Syrian government has publicly taken a confident stance about their progress against rebel fighters. Al Arabiya reports that Jihad al Makdissi, foreign ministry spokesman, announced on Syrian state TV that, “The battle to topple the state is over.” 

As for the recent meeting and international pledges of support, the Syrian government has largely ignored them, calling the meeting a failure, reports Agence France-Presse. On Monday, government troops continued their military assault on rebels in the north of Syria.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Assad's failure to comply with the cease-fire could impel the West to take stronger action.

"Nobody wants to let Bashar al-Assad use any kind of diplomatic initiative to basically run the clock out and let him continue to butcher his own people," said a senior US official. "At some point, we're going to have to talk about the other steps if he doesn't do what he says he's going to do."



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