Syrian opposition promised $200 million in aid

The promised support from Arab countries and the United States could mark a watershed in a conflict that has killed more than 9,000 people in the past year.

Syrians who support President Bashar Al Assad demonstrate outside the "Friends of Syria" meeting in Istanbul where foreign ministers from dozens of countries gathered to discuss the violence in Syria.

ISTANBUL // The Syrian opposition said yesterday it received the promise of millions of dollars in aid and equipment to step up the fight against the regime of Bashar Al Assad.

The pledge came at a meeting of dozens of western and Arab states in Istanbul which vowed to tighten sanctions but remained divided on the issue of military aid to the rebels.

The promised support from Arab countries and the United States could mark a watershed in a conflict that has killed more than 9,000 people in the past year and in which rebels have been hopelessly outgunned by government forces.

Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, warned Syria of "serious consequences" should the violence continue.

Haitham Al Maleh, a veteran Syrian opposition leader, told reporters on the fringes of the meeting that Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Gulf states had agreed to set up a fund to support rebel troops fighting security forces in Syria.

"They have not created the fund yet, but they will in the near future, and they told us they would give around 200 million", Mr Al Maleh said, referring to US dollars. He said the sum was not enough.

"We asked for billions."

Burhan Ghalioun, the leader of the Syrian National Council (SNC), an opposition umbrella group, said his organisation would pay the salaries of all rebels, with the money presumably coming from the fund that Mr Al Maleh mentioned.

"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," he said, referring to a fighting force created by defectors.

It remained unclear if the money would also be used to buy weapons for the rebels. According to news reports, participants said the money would not go towards funding weapons. But Mr Al Maleh said the support would be in "money and weapons".

Marah Bukai, a member of the SNC, said the fund was a good idea in theory.

"But, we want to see when they are going to send it and how it will reach (them) and who it's going to," she said.

"It's a good idea, but it's not enough. We need surgical attacks on this regime, air strikes on strategic places."

The United States also took a step towards more active support for the rebels. Ms Clinton said Washington was providing communications equipment to help opposition members inside Syria.

"We are discussing with our international partners how best to expand this support," Ms Clinton said.

The announcements came at a meeting of the Friends of Syria, a group of more than 80 countries and international organisations trying to put more pressure on the Assad regime. The UAE was among the states present, with a delegation led by Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the foreign minister.

A statement issued after the meeting, the second of its kind after the first conference in Tunis last month, said the group supported the mission of international Syria mediator Kofi Annan, but stressed the window of opportunity provided by the mission was "not open-ended".

It said the regime had "continued to deceive the international community" by promising reform without acting upon its promises.

The Friends of Syria agreed to tighten sanctions against Damascus and to call on Mr Annan, a joint UN-Arab League envoy, "to determine a timeline for next steps, including a return to the UN Security Council, if the killing continues".

Several speakers said the Assad regime was trying to gain time by giving the impression that it supported the Annan peace plan when in fact military operations were continuing.

Host nation Turkey openly was especially outspoken, venting its frustration over the slow pace of diplomatic efforts.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, used his opening address to the several hundred officials to criticise the paralysis of the UN Security Council, where Russia and China have shielded Syria from increased pressure with the use of their veto. Both countries were absent from Istanbul.

Mr Erdogan said Turkey was in favour of arming Syrian rebels if the deadlock continued.

"If the Security Council refrains from taking its responsibility, it will give the Syrian people the legitimate right for self-defence," he told delegates. He said the number of Syrian refugees in Turkey had climbed to 20,000.

Meanwhile, Qatar reiterated its demand to send an international peace force into Syria and to establish safe zones within the country.

"We need to explore all possibilities," said Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani, the Qatari prime minister and foreign minister.

The Syrian opposition also said the time for negotiations was over.

"We require humanitarian support, we need security corridors, we need a more robust Syrian army that can protect the Syrian people, we need a stronger Free Syrian Army," said the SNC's Mr Ghalioun.

"It is time to move from words to action," Mr Ghalioun said. "Something has to change."

But some countries rejected any idea to arm the Syrian opposition, arguing military support for the opposition or an outright military intervention could draw other countries in the region into the conflict.

"We want a political solution," Guido Westerwelle, the German foreign minister, told reporters. "At the moment we are convinced that the plan of Kofi Annan still has a chance and deserves a chance.

"We are convinced a political solution is possible, we also want to prevent the region from going up in flames."

Diplomats said some countries had resisted calls by others to put a time limit on demands for the Assad regime to act upon its promises to Mr Annan.

Also, the SNC was not recognised as the single interlocutor for the international community. The statement issued after the conference called the group "a legitimate representative of all Syrians".

Syria blasted the conference, calling it part of an international conspiracy to kill Syrians and weaken the country.

The Syrian government also announced it had ended the uprising against the Assad regime, but a western official, speaking on condition of anonymity on the fringes of the Istanbul conference, said the regime was clearly weakened. "About one third of the territory is not under the regime's control," he said.

* With an additional report by Zoi Constantine.