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Empowered Syrian opposition group gets help to fight regime, aid citizens

From Jill Dougherty and Ivan Watson, CNN
updated 7:11 PM EDT, Sun April 1, 2012
  • NEW: 80 die in Syria, including 21 in both Homs and Idlib, an opposition group says
  • Rebel Free Syrian Army members will be paid, an opposition leader says
  • He solicits international support to stop the killing and help citizens in need
  • Several nations voiced support and offered aid for the opposition at a conference

Istanbul, Turkey (CNN) -- The once-fractured Syrian opposition appeared to take major steps forward Sunday, with the Syrian National Council earning international recognition and vowing to pay members of its fighting force who are battling President Bashar al-Assad's own troops.

That group's leader, Burhan Ghalioun, told representatives from the Friends of Syria group that gathered Sunday in Istanbul that the opposition is committed to having an inclusive, democratic government that will not discriminate on religious or ethnic bases and will guarantee civil rights for all if and when it ousts Syria's current government.

But before that happens, he said, the Syrian opposition needs the international community's help to address ongoing violence that already has left thousands dead and to help the hundreds of thousands struggling as a result.

"You are watching the tragic scenes coming from Syria," Ghalioun said, urging leaders worldwide to go beyond stern words and commit to the opposition with actions and aid. "The Syrian regime is benefiting from the hesitance of the international community and its division, by tiding up its siege on the cities, displacing its residents, and shelling its neighborhoods".

Many of those at Sunday's conference appeared to amp up their commitments to the cause.

The 83-member coalition -- which technically is the Group of Friends of the Syrian People -- declared its "support for legitimate measures taken by the Syrian population to protect themselves" and urged Syrian forces not to obey "unlawful orders targeting the Syrian people."

And after weeks of criticism that the Syrian opposition was disjointed, did not appear to comprehensively represent interests of dissenters and didn't have a valid plan for a possible post-al-Assad world, the international group formally recognized the Syrian National Council as a legitimate representative of the Syrian people. That effectively makes the council, which includes many Syrian exiles, the main opposition group that other nations will work with.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, from the conference's host nation Turkey, promised the Syrian people "they will not be left alone" as leaders from around the world met to discuss ways to ramp up pressure on al-Assad's regime.

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The United States increased its financial commitment to the cause, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announcing an additional $12 million in aid to the Syrian opposition -- nearly doubling the amount of American money pledged for humanitarian aid like field hospitals and medical training.

But one Syrian National Council member said even more aid is needed, claiming $30 million "is not enough" at a time when over a million people inside Syria need help. Adib Shishakly said that "a million dollars daily, minimum, is needed."

"If we don't bring protection for the people inside Syria, it's like we didn't do anything," Shishakly added, calling for international backing of the rebel Free Syrian Army, safe zones to protect people, and relief and medical support.

He warned that the opposition could not hold out forever if al-Assad does not make good soon on his promise to accept a peace plan by former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

"We cannot keep this thing going," he said. "So if we give a chance to the regime and we don't give a deadline to the Annan mission, then we're giving the Assad regime a chance to commit more killing, more torture."

The Syrian National Council committed Sunday to paying salaries to fighters from the Free Syrian Army, the recently created armed force that is made up largely of defectors from Syria's military and is now the chief fighting force challenging al-Assad's regime.

"The council will be responsible for paying salaries to all officers, soldiers and the active members of the resistance within the Free Syrian Army," said Ghalioun.

The cost of the program is expected to be in the millions of dollars, conference participants said,. One of them added that paying the rebel fighters could, in fact, increase the rate of defections and, in turn, "contribute to the demoralization of the regime."

For the time being, though, promises from the Syrian National Council and the international community didn't appear to have much impact on the ground, as gunfire and explosions rocked the country during Sunday's conference.

According to the opposition group Local Coordination Committees of Syria, at least 80 people -- including six children and four women -- were killed around the country on Sunday.

The group said 21 people died in Idlib, and an identical number were killed in Homs, which has been a hotbed of popular unrest and a target for government forces. Another 17 people died in Hama, nine in Daraa, eight in Deir Ezzor, two in Aleppo and one each in Qamishli and in the suburbs of Damascus.

The continued crackdown didn't prevent a slew of demonstrations calling for an end to al-Assad's regime, according to the LCC. In some cases, the president's forces responded -- including using "live ammo to disperse an evening demonstration" in Aleppo and tear gas to break up a protest outside Damascus, the opposition group said.

Syria's state-run news agency SANA, meanwhile, reported that five military and law enforcement members were buried Sunday, among them a colonel.

And Syria's directorate-general for antiquities and museums on Sunday blamed "terrorist groups" for targeting and, in some cases, damaging world heritage sites in Damascus, Aleppo, Old Bosra, Palmya and elsewhere, according to a SANA report.

CNN cannot independently confirm reports from inside Syria because the government severely restricts access by international journalists.

Yet the United Nations estimates at least 1 million have been affected and more than 9,000 have died since the unrest began. Opposition activists put the death toll at more than 10,000 people, blaming what they call a fierce government crackdown against dissenters.

The Friends of Syria conference came after Annan, a joint U.N..-Arab League envoy, urged the government to lay down its weapons as part of a peace plan to help end the yearlong crisis.

Annan's terms of the peace plan included an end to all violence by the government and opposition, the delivery of timely humanitarian aid, the release of arbitrarily detained people, freedom of movement for journalists, respect for peaceful demonstrations and freedom of association.

Last week, Al-Assad pledged to implement the plan brokered by Annan and vowed to "spare no effort" to ensure its success. However, he demanded that those battling his regime pledge to stop their violence too and the government has thus far refused to pull its troops out of cities -- as prescribed in the initiative.

In a strongly worded speech Sunday, Clinton accused al-Assad's troops of launching new assaults, tightening their siege of residential neighborhoods and crushing dozens of peaceful protests since meeting Annan.

She said the Syrian president was "adding to its long list of broken promises" by failing to implement the Annan peace plan.

The message from the international community to al-Assad and his government is clear, according to Clinton: "Stop killing your fellow citizens or you will face serious consequences."

The Friends of Syria group will work on coordinating sanctions against Syria "to isolate this regime, cut off its funds, and squeeze its ability to wage war on its own people," Clinton said. In her view, sanctions already are slowly beginning to impact the Syrian leadership.

"Really increasing the enforcement of sanctions was one of the best" outcomes of the conference, she told CNN.

"The individual sanctions, you know the travel bans, the visa bans... are beginning to really wake people up. They're looking around thinking, 'For the rest of my life I'm only going to be able to go to Iran? That doesn't sound like a great idea,'" she said.

"The reserves of the country are being drawn down, marketplaces are not as full of goods," she said, even as she conceded that sanctions take time to bite, while violence in the country is "horrific."

Syrian State TV carried some of the Istanbul speeches live, labeling the meeting the "Conference of the enemies of Syria."

"It is great that the conference is taking place on April 1 because it is April Fools' Day," the Syrian news anchor said, accusing the attendees of serving Israeli interests and Erdogan of carrying out Clinton's bidding.

CNN's Yousuf Basil, Saad Abedine and Amir Ahmed and contributed to this report.

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