ISTANBUL — A coalition of at least 70 countries pledged several million dollars a month Sunday and communications equipment for Syrian rebels and opposition activists, signaling deeper involvement in the conflict amid a growing belief that diplomacy and sanctions alone can't end the regime's repression.
The shift by the U.S. and its Western and Arab allies toward seeking to sway the military balance in Syria, where heavily armed regime forces outmatch rebels, carries regional risks because the crisis there increasingly resembles a proxy conflict that could exacerbate sectarian tensions.
It comes after a year of failed diplomacy that seems close to running its course with a troubled peace plan led by U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan.
Indeed, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other participants in a meeting on Syria, held in Istanbul, uniformly expressed concern that Annan's plan might backfire, speculating that President Bashar Assad would try to manipulate it so as to prolong his hold on power.
Clinton said she was waiting for Annan's report to the U.N. Security Council on Monday on the status of his peace plan.
"If Assad continues as he has, to fail to end the violence, to institute a cease-fire, to withdraw his troops from the areas he has been battering ... then it's unlikely he is going to ever agree," she said.
Clinton said Assad may want to wait and see if his forces can completely crush the opposition.
"I think he would be mistaken to believe that," she said. "My reading is that the opposition is gaining in intensity, not losing."
In addition, Clinton said Washington is providing communications equipment to help anti-government activists in Syria organize, remain in contact with the outside world and evade regime attacks.
The Syrian regime agreed to Annan's plan last week, which calls for an immediate cease-fire, humanitarian access to besieged civilians and a political negotiation process led by Syrians. Since then, there have been daily reports of violence. The United Nations says more than 9,000 people have been killed since an uprising against Assad began a year ago.
Russia and China have twice protected the Syrian regime from censure by the U.N. Security Council, fearing such a step could lead to foreign military intervention. Syria's international opponents have no plans to launch a military operation similar to the Libya bombing campaign that ousted leader Moammar Gadhafi, especially without U.N. support, but they are slowly overcoming doubts about assisting scattered rebel forces.
Conference participants in Istanbul said Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries are creating a 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 Assad's army.
Participants confirmed the Gulf plan on condition of anonymity because details were still being worked out. A participant said the fund would involve several million dollars a month. It is allegedly earmarked for salaries, but it was not clear whether there would be any effort to prevent the diversion of money to weapons purchases, a sensitive issue that could prompt stronger accusations of military meddling by foreign powers.
The Saudis and other Arab Gulf states have proposed giving weapons to the rebels, while the U.S. and other allies 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.
Mohammed al-Said, a Syrian activist in the town of Duma, northwest of Damascus, said salaries might encourage further defections, but that only arms would turn the tide against Assad.
"What is clear to us is that only fighting can make this regime leave," he said via Skype, adding the opposition wanted arms more than military intervention so they could topple Assad themselves.
Fayez Amru, a rebel who recently defected from the military and is now based in Turkey, welcomed the decision as a "humanitarian step in the right direction," but also said weapons were needed.
"We feel let down by the international community. I don't know why there is hesitation by the West ... maybe this will help at least keep the rebels on their feet," Amru said.
The debate over arming or funding the rebels is being driven partly by the sectarian split in the region. The upheaval in Syria presents an opportunity for the Sunni Muslim states in the Gulf to bolster their influence, consolidate power and possibly leave regional rival Iran, led by a Shiite theocracy, without critical alliances that flow through Damascus.
Assad's regime, which counts Iran among its few allies, is led by the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiism.
Last year, Saudi Arabia sent tanks to help fellow Sunni leaders in Bahrain crush a largely Shiite rebellion there, indicating that sectarian interests sometimes trump calls for democratic change in the Middle East.
Turkey hosts 20,000 Syrian refugees, including hundreds of army defectors, and has floated the idea of establishing a buffer zone inside Syria if the flow of displaced people across its border becomes overwhelming. Parts of the southern Turkish region near Syria are informal logistics bases for rebels, who collect food and other supplies in Turkey and deliver them to comrades on smuggling routes.
At the meeting in Istanbul, delegates talked of tighter sanctions and increased diplomatic pressure on Assad, and Syrian opposition representatives promised 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.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said military options might have to be considered if Syria does not cooperate with Annan's plan and the U.N. Security Council fails to unite in opposition to Assad.
"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," Erdogan said.
Burhan Ghalioun, leader of the opposition Syrian National Council, called for the strengthening of Syrian rebel forces as well as "security corridors" inside Syria, a reference to internationally protected zones on Syrian territory that would allow the delivery of aid to civilians. However, the nation's meeting in Istanbul has so far failed to agree on such an intervention, which could involve the deployment of foreign security forces.
"No one should allow this regime to feel at ease or to feel stronger by giving them a longer maneuvering area," he said, reflecting fears that Assad would try to use the Annan plan to prolong his tenure. "It's enough that the international community has flirted with the regime in Syria. Something has to change."
In a statement, the Syrian National Council said weapons supplies to the opposition were not "our preferred option" because of the risk they could escalate the killing of civilians, but it appealed for technical equipment to help rebels coordinate.
"For these supplies to be sent, neighboring countries need to allow for the transfer via their sea ports and across borders," the council said.
The one-day meeting followed an inaugural forum in Tunisia in February. Since then, Syrian opposition figures have tried to convince international sponsors that they can overcome their differences and shape the future of a country whose autocratic regime has long denied the free exchange of ideas.
Syria criticized the conference, calling it part of an international conspiracy to kill Syrians and weaken the country.
A front-page editorial in the official Al-Baath newspaper called it a "regional and international scramble to search for ways to kill more Syrians, sabotage their society and state, and move toward the broad objective of weakening Syria."
In Istanbul, police used tear gas and batons to disperse a group of about 40 Assad supporters who tried to approach the conference building. Many held portraits of the Syrian leader. One man waved Chinese and Russian flags. (AP)