PARIS/UNITED NATIONS: France’s foreign minister said Monday Syria risked falling into the hands of Islamist militant groups if supporters of the opposition don’t do more to help it in a 22-month-old revolt against President Bashar Assad.
The warning by Laurent Fabius came as U.N. officials said they would be forced to dramatically cut back assistance to needy Syrians inside and outside the country unless more money is raised for humanitarian efforts.
Addressing the opening of a conference in Paris with senior members of the Syrian National Coalition, Fabius said Syria’s opposition must become politically and militarily cohesive to encourage international assistance.
“Facing the collapse of a state and society, it is Islamist groups that risk gaining ground if we do not act as we should,” he said. “We cannot let a revolution that started as a peaceful and democratic protest degenerate into a conflict of militias.”
The meeting, which brought together Western and Arab nations and the three vice-presidents of the coalition, tackled the lack of cohesion that has led to broken promises of aid.
Coalition Vice President Riad Seif said “time is not on our side” and that the opposition no longer wanted pledges of support that would not be followed through on.
“We need an interim or transitional government to provide assistance to millions of Syrians in liberated zones and to help bring the collapse of the [Assad] regime,” he said.
Fabius sidestepped the question of arming the rebels, underlining the Western wariness about weapons spreading to Islamists across the volatile region, where long-standing rulers in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya have been toppled by popular uprisings over the past two years.
France said last week there was no sign Assad was about to be overthrown, reversing previous statements that he could not hold out long, while Jordan’s King Abdullah said the authoritarian Syrian leader would consolidate his grip for now.
The European Union is set to review its arms embargo on Syria at the end of February.
Since its formation in November, the coalition has failed to gain traction on the ground in Syria and its credibility has been undermined by its inability to secure arms and cash.
“From the beginning we said we should be based in Syria, but so far we haven’t received any money to run a government,” Seif said.
He said the coalition lacked the financial or military means to set up within Syria and support civilians on the ground: “We are looking with our friends at how we can protect the liberated zones with defensive weapons and we are discussing how to get billions of dollars to create a budget.”
“But if we don’t have this budget there is no point having a government. It makes no sense.” George Sabra, another coalition vice president, said the group needed at least $500 million to launch a government.
A French diplomatic source present at the meeting said the coalition had received concrete promises from several countries that should keep it running for several months. He declined to say how much or which countries.
But the coalition’s disunity – it failed last week to form a transitional government – has deterred the West from boosting assistance, especially sophisticated arms and ammunition that the insurgents are crying out for.
“We also need weapons. We needed them from the first minute,” Sabra said. “At the last meeting of Friends of Syria, they recognized our rights to defend ourselves. [But] what does that mean if we cannot provide help to victims?”
Meanwhile, the U.N. warned that it would be unable to help millions of war-hit Syrians without more money and appealed for donations at an aid conference Wednesday in Kuwait to meet its $1.5 billion target.
It has raised just 3 percent of that so far.
The world body will be forced to cut already reduced food rations to hundreds of thousands of Syrians unless a huge cash injection is found, U.N. humanitarian operations director John Ging said in New York.
“We are putting it squarely to the donors, more cuts are likely,” Ging told reporters. “We have already cut the calorie per kilo intake of rations by 50 percent over the past two months.”
With the U.N. and private aid agencies facing criticism from opposition groups over the allocation of assistance, Ging said aid workers were putting paper messages in the food rations to say that amounts had been cut because of funding shortages, not political reasons.
On the ground, rebels took over one of four key suspension bridges in the city of Deir al-Zor on the Euphrates river, which connects the eastern city to Hassakeh province further north.
“The bridge is important because that it allows the army to send troops and supplies to Hassakeh,” said Rami Abdelrahman, the head of the the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
At least 100 people were killed in fighting, airstrikes, shelling and other violence around the country, according to anti-regime activists in Syria.