Gulf fund's problems highlight Syria aid challenge

Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — Two weeks after their bold promise, Saudi Arabia and other wealthy Arab Gulf states have yet to start distributing money from a multimillion-dollar fund designed to prop up Syria's rebels and entice defections from President Bashar Assad's army, Syrian opposition members and international officials say.

The cash program was outlined this month at a conference in Istanbul, where representatives of the United States and more than 60 other nations met to strengthen Syria's opposition and increase pressure on the Assad regime. Hoping to crack Assad's support, Washington and its Arab partners seized on the plan as a path forward even as they disagreed on the idea of giving weapons to badly outgunned Syrian rebels.

But the fund's implementation is already beset by problems — basically, how to get the money there and how to make sure it gets to the right people. There's no way to monitor where the money goes as the country veers toward civil war. Because the rebels hold no territory and struggle even to maintain communications among inside and outside Syria, there is no clear way to deliver the money.

The problems underscore the larger problem to providing aid of any kind to the Syrian rebellion. The Obama administration recently signed off on $12 million in enhanced communications, medical and other "nonlethal" assistance to the opposition, but it is unclear what goods are making their way into Syria and by what means.

Even the recipients are largely unknown, with American officials themselves saying they are still trying to get to know Syria's armed and political opposition better.

Other Arab and European countries have made similar pledges of aid that Syrians say they haven't seen — five days into a U.N.-brokered cease-fire that was supposed to allow greater humanitarian and other relief to enter the country. But Assad's government has launched more artillery attacks on opposition strongholds, continuing a year of violent repression that has killed more than 9,000 people and put into doubt international aid hopes.

In an effort to ramp up the pressure on Assad further, France is convening a meeting Thursday of countries leading the call for the Syrian leader's ouster. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the foreign ministers of Qatar and Turkey are among the invitees, a French diplomatic source told The Associated Press. But no significant policy changes are expected at the gathering, according to officials with knowledge of the planning. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss publicly the planning for the meeting.

Widespread international skepticism over the feasibility of a cease-fire with Assad is fueling the debate for how to help the rebels better defend themselves. Up to now, it doesn't appear that any governments are arming the opposition significantly and the U.S. remains firmly opposed, fearful that further militarization of the conflict could cause more violence and more deaths without necessarily accelerating Assad's departure.

The Saudis and other Gulf states have a history of promising lavish aid packages to other Arab populations, in particular the Palestinians, and not always delivering. The Arab Gulf states are committed to delivering the money to Syria, a senior Arab official involved in the planning insisted. He spoke on condition of anonymity because details were still being worked out.

The problem of accountability presents a conundrum for Arab and Western governments alike. They want their money to reach the right people and support the cause, yet lack the delivery address, bank accounts and clear supply routes to make it happen. If it takes too long for accounting standards to be established, the Assad government could destroy the opposition in the meantime and deal the most powerful setback yet to rebels after more than a year of Arab Spring uprisings.

Sameer Mashaar, a finance official for the Syrian National Council, confirmed that the Gulf fund still doesn't exist in practice, while acknowledging that his group receives some money from the region through unofficial channels. It all goes to the "political opposition," he said.

"Regarding the armed opposition and arming, there is nothing," Mashaar said.

Col. Ahmad al-Shaykh of the rebel Free Syrian Army also regretted that there has been no funding for wages as promised.

"We would accept help from any country on earth willing to support us," he said in Turkey. "Whether it is an Arab country, Turkey or NATO."

On Tuesday, activists charged the Syrian regime with widening an artillery assault on the central city of Homs. Meanwhile in Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accused unspecified foreign forces of trying to thwart what remained of the truce by encouraging the opposition to fight Assad's government.

While skeptical, the Obama administration has tried to hold Assad to the cease-fire plan and maintain cooperation with Russia and China, two veto-wielding members of the U.N. Security Council who have twice shielded the Syrian government from the global body's condemnation. The U.S. also has tried to carefully neutralize Assad's claims of a Western conspiracy against his government by pointing to the U.S. refusal to arm Syria's rebels.

But without additional arms the rebels are hopelessly outmatched, experts say. Their AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades are "enough to defend themselves at the moment but not enough to wage war," said Martin Butcher, a policy adviser on arms and disarmament for the aid group Oxfam.

Joseph Holliday, an analyst with the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War and the author of a recent report on the conflict, said the rebels need anti-tank weapons to stop the Syrian army from moving around the country at will. And they need more small weapons, he said, pointing to videos showing two machine guns and two RPGs for every 50 men.

But weapons alone may not tip the balance — as was the case last year when Western and Arab nations had to go to war to help Libyan rebels defeat Moammar Gadhafi. In the United States, Sen. John McCain has suggested airstrikes against Syrian armed forces that are far better trained than Gadhafi's and have much better morale.

The administration has effectively ruled out such an escalation. European countries are unlikely to get militarily involved without the United States and Turkey has backed off from talk of creating buffer zones along the Syrian border. Any foreign military action could provoke anger from Russia and China, and open hostility from Iran, whose personnel have actively supported Assad's government.

As for the Gulf states, Hilal Khashan, political science professor at the American University of Beirut, doubted whether they'd even be willing to foot the bill for the rebellion. "There is a delicate balance of power in the Gulf," he said. "If the Saudis were to step up operations in Syria, the Iranians can respond by aggravating the situation in the Gulf. The two sides know what they are doing."

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Associated Press writers Elizabeth A. Kennedy, Zeina Karam and Bassem Mroue in Beirut, Don Melvin in Brussels and Andrea Glioti in Hatay, Turkey, contributed to this report.

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