BEIRUT

Middle East

Syrian activists to plead for more help to oust Assad

  • Rebel fighters are seen running as they hold their position some 50 meters away from Syrian government troops in Aleppo's northern Izaa quarter on September 27, 2012. (AFP PHOTO/MIGUEL MEDINA)

NEW YORK: Syrian grassroots activists working to run field hospitals and repair fuel lines will Friday urge world leaders to do more to help a stricken people caught up in the battle to oust the Assad regime.

Appearing on the sidelines of the world's largest diplomatic gathering, the Syrians, many of whom have flown in from Syria, will attend a meeting of the ad-hoc Friends of Syria group hosted by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The U.S. top diplomat is expected to unveil further funding to help the Syrian opposition as it battles to topple President Bashar Assad, and end an 18-month conflict that has claimed some 30,000 lives.

The United States has already provided some $100 million in humanitarian assistance, and a further $25 million in non-lethal aid. Washington has however also insisted it will not bow to calls to arm the rebels, fearing it will further complicate the situation on the ground.

In a sign of the dangers they are facing, the representatives of some of the Syrian political opposition groups and revolutionary councils springing up in liberated areas such as Homs and Aleppo have asked not to be identified.

"It's important to recognize the courage of these people, but also we need to hear from them firsthand about the types of support that they want," a senior State Department official said Thursday.

The talks in New York will focus on what extra support can be given to the opposition, what the humanitarian needs are and how pressure can be increased on the Assad regime, the official said.

"None of this is happening as quickly as we would like, in terms of the regime leaving, of Bashar Assad and his clique stepping aside to allow a transition to go forward," the U.S. official said.

"That said, the regime is steadily losing ground if you look at the changes on the ground... the regime is definitely slipping militarily," he said, pointing to cracks in the Assad power structure including defections, military losses, and the loss of control of many of the border crossings with Turkey and Iraq.

One of the major concerns is the growing refugee crisis. About one million to 1.5 million people are internally displaced, with a further 300,000 having slipped into neighboring countries, according to UN estimates.

Iraq will join a meeting of the Friends of Syria for the first time, in growing recognition of the role it plays in the region, and the number of refugees it is now hosting.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said after a meeting with the leader of the Syrian National Council, Abdul Basit Sieda, Thursday that the opposition inside and outside of Syria needed to come together.

"Given the escalating violence and the dramatically increasing number of victims, the opposition must build a united platform and not just against Assad, but also for a democratic and pluralistic future for Syria," he said.

"Only together do they have a chance of withstanding Assad's repressive machine," Westerwelle said, reiterating Germany's support for the opposition.

The U.S. official revealed that just this week, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) managed to sneak enough medical supplies across the border and into southern Syria to treat some 27,000 people.

He refused to reveal how it was done however, saying he did not want to endanger people's lives.

U.S. officials say they are also getting appeals from Syrians inside the country to help them with organizing life inside liberated areas.

"There is no cell phone service for example in liberated areas. So even just communicating amongst themselves is very difficult," the official said.

Americans have so far supplied some 1,200 pieces of equipment, mainly communications, to the Syrian opposition.

"Mostly off-the-shelf stuff, but sophisticated off-the-shelf stuff. Not quite Radio Shack but close to it," the official quipped, referring to a popular electrical goods store.

"We have worked very hard to make sure that in these places where the regime is targeting civilians, where the killing is atrocious, that the story can be heard."

Other initiatives included helping people to repair fuel lines, or maintain infrastructure with the Syrian regime no longer providing basic services in most areas.

Groups of activists have received training at a U.S. office in Istanbul, while the hope is now to be able to get such aid inside the country.

 
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