U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton unveiled additional aid for Syrian refugees and the political opposition that controls areas she called “free Syria,” even as the opposition continued to push for U.S. military backing.
Speaking yesterday at a meeting in New York, Clinton said the U.S. will provide a total $45 million in new aid. She also welcomed the decision by Iraq to inspect Iranian aircraft seeking to fly to Syria through its airspace. The U.S. has complained that Iraq was allowing overflights by planes that may be carrying military supplies to the Syrian regime.
The meeting of officials from about two dozen countries that have most actively supported the opposition, as well as Syrian opposition members, underscored the difficulty the international community has had in confronting the regime lead by Bashar al-Assad that responded with military force to what began as a peaceful democracy protests.
“We must stand with those Syrians who believe in a different vision,” Clinton said as the meeting opened. “There will be difficult days ahead, but our unity and resolve must not waver as we continue to do what we can to end the violence and bloodshed, and bring about a better day for the Syrian people.”
International and regional efforts have failed to put an end to the bloodshed in Syria, where at least 28,000 people have been killed in the uprising, according to activist groups. Syrian government forces killed 154 people across the country yesterday, the Syrian Network for Human Rights said in an e-mailed statement.
The meeting included a number of opposition groups from Syria, including the Syrian Revolution General Commission, the Syrian National Council and the Homs Revolutionary Council. For their security, the opposition members didn’t enter the room until press and cameras there to record Clinton’s opening statement had left.
The two dozen countries and groups attending included the Arab League, Iraq, Egypt, the UN, the U.K. and Gulf nations, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, which has called most aggressively for arming Syrian rebels.
Clinton said that the often fractious opposition groups were making progress toward greater unity and that more work needed to be done to build consensus around a political transition plan. Opposition groups will meet again in Qatar to work on unity and cohesion, Clinton said.
The U.S. opposes military intervention, even as the Assad regime has escalated the use of its airpower against opposition forces and civilians. France has been in talks with Qatar, Jordan and Turkey about establishing protected civilian zones in Syria, French President Francois Hollande said at a press conference in New York on Sept. 25 after his General Assembly address.
“It’s very difficult to establish permanent command centers or stability if your supposed safe zones are under regular assault from the air,” Amr al-Azm, a history professor at Shawnee State University in Portsmouth, Ohio, who is involved in Syrian opposition efforts, said in a telephone interview.
“If you could neutralize the regime’s ability to use the aircraft to shell and attack positions, particularly in the liberated zone, that would make a big difference to how the battle will unfold,” said al-Azm, who acts as a spokesman for the Civil Administration Council, a political opposition group of more than 25,000 people on the ground in Syria.
The new U.S. funding brings total humanitarian aid for Syria to more than $130 million. Yesterday’s announcement includes $30 million for food, water, blankets and critical medicines.
The number of Syrian refugees in neighboring countries could more than double to 700,000 by the end of this year, the United Nations refugee agency said on Sept 27. The UN called on donors for $295 million in extra funding Sept. 27 and yesterday Clinton appealed to international donors to meet this need.
“The UN appeal remains woefully underfunded,” Clinton said. “All of us in the international community have to step up, and I repeat our urgent call for all parties to ensure that humanitarian aid reaches those in need, to uphold international law and particularly to protect medical facilities and personnel.”
Clinton referred indirectly to Russia and China, which have protected Assad from censure at the United Nations, saying that attempts to move forward in the Security Council have been “blocked repeatedly.” Clinton met on Sept. 25 with Lakhdar Brahimi, the Joint Special Envoy for the Arab League and the UN, to discuss “alternative strategies,” she said.
The U.S. will continue to target those who support the Syrian regime, either financially or by providing communications equipment, Clinton said. Recent measures targeted leaders of Hezbollah, considered a terrorist group by the U.S., and an arms company in Belarus that the U.S. said is supplying fuses for aerial bombs used against civilians.
Al-Azm said that if the U.S. and its allies would target Syria’s air force instead of the companies that supply them, it would hasten the regime’s fall.
The Civil Administration Council, al-Azm’s organization, is an umbrella group for Local Coordinating Committees, people who are trying to man fire stations, remove rubble after regime bombing campaigns and run their local municipalities in “liberated” areas where the central government no longer functions.
Clinton announced another $15 million for political opposition groups like the Civil Administration Council that will be used to provide them with satellite-linked computers, telephones, cameras and training “to help them strengthen their networks, avoid regime persecution and better document human rights abuses,” Clinton said.
One State Department official, who wasn’t authorized to speak on the record, said that in cities like Idlib, Damascus, Homs, Aleppo and elsewhere, local councils are being set up to run their cities in places where he said the Syrian army hasn’t been present for months.
Many activists have appealed to the U.S. and other countries for training in how to deliver services, the official said. The new funds will support some of this training, which the U.S. supports as it will prepare the opposition for the day Assad is gone.
In her remarks at the meeting, Clinton said that the regime still has powerful regional support.
“The regime’s most important lifeline is Iran,” she said, referring to comments by a senior Iranian official last week which acknowledged that members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps are operating inside Syria in support of Assad’s forces.