Kofi Annan

From amateur video released by Ugarit on Thursday purports to show Syrian security forces at Aleppo University. Syrian security forces stormed dormitories to break up anti-government protests.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

BEIRUT — Syrian forces stormed student dormitories during an anti-government protest at Aleppo University Thursday, firing tear gas and bullets in an hours-long siege that killed at least four students and forced the closure of the state-run school, activists said.U.N. truce observers toured other restive parts of the country, and residents told them of being too terrified to walk on the streets after dark as the 14-month-old uprising rages on. The U.N. estimates 9,000 people have been killed since the revolt began, and a peace plan brokered by international envoy Kofi Annan nearly a month ago has done little to stem the bloodshed.

In Washington, White House spokesman Jay Carney admitted the plan might be doomed.

“If the regime’s intransigence continues, the international community is going to have to admit defeat,” he said, adding that new measures might have to be taken, including a return to the U.N. Security Council. He gave no further details.

It was not clear how long the university would remain closed following the siege, which began late Wednesday when around 1,500 students held a protest against President Bashar Assad’s regime. Pro-regime students attacked the crowd with knives before security forces swept in, firing tear gas and then live ammunition, activists said.

“Some students ran to their rooms to take cover, but they were followed to their rooms, beaten up and arrested,” student activist Thaer al-Ahmed said. “Others suffered cuts and broken bones as they tried to flee.”

Raids and intermittent gunfire continued for about five hours through early Thursday, he said, adding that dozens of people were wounded, some critically, and 200 students were arrested.

The student quarters — known as the University City — comprise 20 dormitories that house more than 5,000 students next to the university campus. Students there often shout anti-Assad slogans from their rooms at night.

It was an unusually violent incident in Aleppo, a major economic hub that has remained largely loyal to Assad and has been spared the kind of daily bloodshed that has plagued other Syrian cities over the course of the uprising.

There has been a string of bombings near government security buildings in Aleppo and the capital, Damascus, adding a mysterious element to the anti-government revolt. U.S. officials suggested al-Qaida militants may be joining the fray.

For the most part, Aleppo has been quiet, but university students — many from rebellious areas such as the northern Idlib province — have been staging almost daily protests calling for the fall of Assad.

Al-Ahmed, a law student, said the Aleppo campus and dormitories have been raided before, but Thursday was the most violent incident.

Amateur videos showed a large number of security forces apparently storming the dorms Wednesday night. Another showed a student protest earlier the same day with shouts of: “We don’t want you, Bashar!” One showed the campus with windows shattered and a man dousing a smoldering fire with a bucket of water.The authenticity of the videos could not be confirmed.

The Local Coordination Committees activist group said five students were killed and some 200 arrested in the raids, while the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the death toll at four. The Syrian government has prevented independent reporting in the country, making it impossible to independently verify casualty figures.

“Regime forces demanded through loudspeakers that the dorms be evacuated, then began detaining the students,” the LCC said in a statement.

Al-Ahmed and the Observatory’s director Rami Abdul-Rahman said pro-regime students armed with knives tried to break up the protest before the security forces raided the dorms.
Syria’s persistent bloodshed has tarnished efforts by a U.N. team of observers to salvage the truce that was brokered by Annan but which started to unravel almost as soon as it was supposed to begin on April 12.

The two sides have blamed each other for thwarting the truce, with Assad’s forces trying to repress demonstrators calling for him to step down. The regime also is facing an armed rebellion that has sprung up as peaceful protests have proved ineffective against his forces.

The head of the U.N. observers, Norwegian Maj. Gen. Robert Mood, visited the central cities of Homs and Hama, where anti-regime sentiment runs high. He said there is still “a good chance and an opportunity” to break the cycle of violence.

“I call on all the parties to stop the violence,” Mood told reporters. “If you use military force, it creates more force, it creates more violence ... so it should always be the last resort.”
Reporters accompanying the observers on the tour interviewed residents who said life was fairly normal during the day but was worrisome after dark.

“The situation is calm during the day but scary at night,” said Maher Jerjous, a 53-year-old resident of the Bab al-Quba district in Hama. “Masked gunmen ... roam the streets. There are kidnappings on public roads. You will not see anyone (on the streets) after six.”

Despite the violence, the international community still sees Annan’s plan as the last chance to prevent Syria from falling into civil war — in part because no other country wants to intervene militarily.

The unrest also is eviscerating the economy, threatening the business community and prosperous merchant classes that are key to propping up the regime. The opposition has tried to rally these largely silent, but hugely important, sectors of society. Assad’s opponents have failed so far to galvanize support in Damascus and Aleppo — the two economic centers in Syria.

Masood Ahmed, the director of the International Monetary Fund’s Middle East and Central Asia department, said in an interview that the conflict is damaging the economy.
“This year, we do anticipate there will be a significant contraction in the economy,” he told The Associated Press by phone during a visit to the United Arab Emirates.

Ahmed acknowledged that the unrest makes it difficult to determine how much the economy is suffering. He said the extent of the damage will depend on how the conflict plays out, what aid Syria gets from outside, and how much effect a September ban by the European Union on Syrian oil imports is affecting the country.

Some 95 percent of Syria’s oil used to go to the EU, and revenue from those sales made up for a quarter of the country’s budget, Ahmed said. He added that there is evidence private-sector Syrian banks are facing a wave of withdrawals, with about a quarter of deposits being pulled out.

“Apart from this terrible human toll, the conflict clearly has an impact on Syria economically,” he said.

In other violence, state-run news agency SANA said that gunmen assassinated Ismail Haidar, the son of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party’s leader, on Wednesday. Haidar was shot dead by “terrorists” on the highway from Homs to Misyaf, it said.

Haidar’s father is also a member of the Popular Front for Change and Liberation, which calls for peaceful, democratic change in Syria but is considered by some to be close to the regime.

The Observatory also said that Bassel Raya, a former basketball player who played on the Syrian national team, died Thursday from wounds suffered last week when he was shot by gunmen in a Damascus suburb.
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AP Business Writer Adam Schreck in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and AP writer Albert Aji in Hama, Syria, contributed to this report. 

This image, made from amateur video released by Douma City and accessed Thursday, purports to show Syrian military tanks at te Damascus suburb of Dourma, Syria.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

BEIRUT — U.N. observers on Thursday inspected the site of an explosion that flattened a block of houses in the central Syrian city of Hama and killed at least 16 people, while the government and the opposition traded blame over the cause of the blast.

Syrian state-run media said rebel bomb-makers accidentally set off the explosives. Anti-regime activists said intense shelling by government forces caused the extensive damage. It was impossible to independently verify the conflicting accounts because President Bashar Assad’s regime, facing a 13-month-old uprising, has restricted access for journalists and other outside witnesses.

The spokesman for U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan, Ahmad Fawzi, said observers visited the site but he had no immediate word on what they saw.

Two U.N. observers are stationed in Hama, part of an advance team of 15 monitors who are visiting hot spots to try to salvage a cease-fire that is part of a peace plan aimed at ending the violence and bringing the two sides to the negotiating table. The observer team is to be expanded in the coming weeks to up to 300.

Amateur videos said to be of Wednesday’s blasts in Hama showed a large cloud of white and yellow smoke rising from a neighborhood surrounded by green fields. In a later video, dozens of people searched through the debris, including huge chunks of cement and broken cinderblocks. Another clip shows the bloodied body of a little girl being carried through a crowd of wailing men.

The state-run Syrian news agency SANA said rebels mishandling explosives triggered a blast that killed at least 16 people and severely damaged at least six houses.

The Local Coordination Committees, a network of activists, denied that and said it was intense shelling from government tanks that caused the damage. The group put the death toll as high as 70, but that estimate was not confirmed by others.

Another opposition group, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the cause of the destruction was not immediately clear. The Observatory initially cited reports by local residents that they had come under attack from regime forces.

However, the head of the group, Rami Abdul-Rahman, said he could not confirm those reports and called for an investigation by U.N. observers. He said at least 16 people were killed.

With the violence in Syria continuing despite U.N.-led efforts to implement the truce, the international community has grown increasingly impatient with the Assad regime.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon demanded Thursday that the Syrian government immediately comply with its commitment to withdraw troops and heavy weapons from cities and towns, said U.N. deputy spokesman Eduardo del Buey.

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, condemned the Syrian government’s continuing intense use of heavy weapons in Hama and elsewhere.

Rice also said Wednesday’s Hama explosion appeared to be “the result of intense shelling” though she couldn’t say this with certainty.

Russia, one of the regime’s main allies, said violations of the cease-fire were still being committed by both sides, but blamed the opposition overall.

“Most often this occurs because of provocative actions from the armed opposition, which often force the Syrian security forces to open fire in response,” Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said. Still, he added, the level of violence in the country has declined considerably since the observers arrived.

“All of this allows us to claim that the situation in Syria is starting to improve slightly, although this is a very fragile trend,” he added.

The United Nations has so far negotiated for countries to provide 100 unarmed truce monitors to be on the ground in Syria, in addition to civilian support staff, within 30 days of the April 12 cease-fire, a U.N. official said Thursday. But he said differences between politicians and military officials in potential contributing nations have slowed the negotiations for more troops. He did not elaborate.

The official said the U.N. will announce Friday that Norwegian Maj. Gen. Robert Mood is being appointed to lead the team of U.N. observers. He spoke on condition of anonymity because the announcement has not yet been made.

Bassma Kodmani, a spokeswoman for the opposition Syrian National Council, called Thursday for a unified Arab stand against what she said was Damascus’ failure to honor terms of Annan’s peace plan. She urged the Arab League to “open the door” to a U.N. Security Council resolution that would create safe havens in Syria and allow international relief agencies to operate there freely.

The Arab League later said it would ask the U.N. Security Council to “review” its policy on Syria if the regime there fails to fully and immediately honor its commitment to a cease-fire.

A statement by Arab foreign ministers meeting Thursday in Cairo said the Damascus regime was negotiating while simultaneously “killing its own people.” It said Morocco, currently a member of the 15-nation U.N. Security Council, to convey the League’s request when the world body meets to discuss Syria on May 5.

Arab countries are divided over how to deal with the Syrian crisis, with Gulf countries led by Qatar and Saudi Arabia in favor of arming the opposition and others like Egypt, Iraq and Sudan preferring a diplomatic solution.

For now, the international community remains united in support of Annan’s plan, which calls for a cease-fire, to be followed by talks between the regime and the opposition on a political solution to the conflict that the U.N. says has killed more than 9,000 people.

That plan, however, has been troubled from the start. Syria has failed to enact key parts of the plan, like withdrawing its forces from cities, and its troops have attacked opposition areas, killing scores of civilians since the truce was to begin on April 12. Rebel fighters, too, have attacked military checkpoints and convoys.

Syria’s information minister said Thursday that armed terrorist groups have stepped up their attacks since Annan’s peace plan went into effect, adding that they have breached the cease-fire plan more than 1,300 times. Adnan Mahmoud said Annan has been informed of those violations.

Associated Press writers Karin Laub in Beirut, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Frank Jordans in Geneva contributed to this report.

Printed on Friday, April 27. 2012 as: Syrian Rebels, regime trade blame for explosion

Lebanese anti-Syrian regime protestors carry the Syrian revolutionary flag at Martyr's Square in Beirut, Lebanon, last month.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

BEIRUT — Syria’s opposition called for widespread protests Friday to test the regime’s commitment to an internationally brokered cease-fire that the U.N. chief described as so fragile it could collapse with a single gunshot.

Regime forces halted heavy shelling and other major attacks in line with the truce that began at dawn Thursday, though there were accusations of scattered violence by both sides. The government ignored demands to pull troops back to barracks, however, defying a key aspect of the plan, which aims to calm a year-old uprising that has killed 9,000 people and has pushed the country toward civil war.

“The onus is on the government of Syria to prove that their words will be matched by their deeds at this time,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters in Geneva. He said the world was watching with skeptical eyes.

“This cease-fire process is very fragile. It may be broken any time,” Ban added, saying “another gunshot” could doom the truce.

The presence of tanks and troops could discourage any large gatherings, but the leader of the opposition Syrian National Council, Burhan Ghalioun, urged Syrians to demonstrate peacefully on Friday. “Tomorrow, like every Friday, the Syrian people are called to demonstrate even more and put the regime in front of its responsibilities — put the international community in front of its responsibilities.”

A massive protest would be an important test of the cease-fire — whether President Bashar Assad will allow his forces to hold their fire and risk ushering in a weekslong sit-in or losing control over territory that government forces recently recovered from rebels.

So far, the military crackdown has prevented protesters from recreating the powerful displays of dissent seen in Egypt’s Tahrir Square.

If the truce holds, it would be the first time the regime has observed an internationally brokered cease-fire since Assad’s regime launched a brutal crackdown 13 months ago.

“The test will come when we start to see protests across the length and breadth of the country,” said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center. “Is the Assad regime willing to accept that there will likely be hundreds of thousands of people on the streets in the next few days? And will they accept those protesters, if they are not breaking any laws, occupying certain spaces and towns and centers of towns, should that start to arise?”

An outbreak of violence at a chaotic rally could give the regime a pretext for ending the truce. And it would be difficult to determine the source of such an attack, given that Syria is largely sealed off from journalists and outside observers.

The U.N. chief’s envoy, Kofi Annan, urged the 15-nation U.N. Security Council to authorize an observer mission that would keep the cease-fire going and to demand that Assad order his troops back to barracks, U.N. diplomats said. The council could adopt a resolution on the observers as early as Friday, the diplomats said on condition of anonymity because the meeting was closed.

Western powers, skeptical that Assad will call off the killings, said an end to violence is just the first step.

U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron urged Syria’s allies Russia and China to help “tighten the noose” around Assad’s regime. Russia and China have blocked strong action against Syria at the Security Council, fearing it would open the door to possible NATO airstrikes like those that helped topple Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton noted that Assad failed to comply with key obligations, such as pulling back tanks.

“The burden of fully and visibly meeting all of these obligations continues to rest with the regime,” she said. “They cannot pick and choose. For it to be meaningful, this apparent halt in violence must lead to a credible political process and a peaceful, inclusive democratic transition.”

The U.S. Embassy in Damascus published an image on its Facebook page that purports to show tanks deployed within the city of Homs.

“Clearly, Assad is not complying,” the embassy said.

Bassma Kodmani, a spokeswoman for the opposition Syrian National Council, said a heavy security presence, including checkpoints and snipers, remained in the streets despite the cease-fire.

“There is no evidence of any significant withdrawal,” she told reporters in Geneva. “The real test for us today is if people can go and demonstrate peacefully” she added. “This is the real reality check.”

But analysts said the apparent halt in government attacks suggests Assad’s allies are pressuring him for the first time, after shielding him from international condemnation in the past. Annan has visited Russia, Iran and China to get the broadest possible backing for the plan.

On Thursday, the Russian and Chinese ambassadors called the Syrian cease-fire an important step and said they supported implementation of all points in the Annan plan — including the troop and equipment withdrawal.

“We’re encouraged that we do now have a cessation of violence in Syria,” Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said. “We hope it holds. Everybody needs to behave with maximum prudence for that to happen.”

“Frankly, there is one thing which Mr. Annan, I hope, is going to accomplish very soon — clear-cut agreement by opposition leaders to enter into dialogue with the Syrian government,” Churkin added. “This so far has not happened.”

There were signs of how easily the Annan plan could fray.

In the hours after the 6 a.m. deadline, at least four civilians were reported killed — three of them by sniper fire — and the state-run news agency said “terrorist groups” set off a roadside bomb that killed a soldier. But there was no sign of the heavy shelling, rocket attacks and sniper fire that have become routine.

Troops also intensified searches at checkpoints, tightening controls ahead of possible large-scale protests Friday.

Although Syria promised to comply with the cease-fire, the regime carved out an important condition — that it still has a right to defend itself against the terrorists that it says are behind the rebellion.

The government denies that it is facing a popular uprising. Instead, the regime says, terrorists are carrying out a foreign conspiracy to destroy Syria. Because the regime has treated any sign of dissent as a provocation, many observers fear that an abrupt end to the bloodshed will be all but impossible.

In the early days of the Syrian rebellion, Syrian forces used tanks, snipers and machine guns on peaceful protesters, driving many of them to take up arms. Since then, the uprising has transformed into an armed insurgency, with more and more protesters taking up arms and rebels forming a fighting force to bring down the regime.

The rebel Free Syrian Army, made up largely of army defectors, has said it will observe the cease-fire. But the opposition is not well-organized, and there are growing fears of groups looking to exploit the chaos.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar have called for arming the rebels, but even if they follow through there is no guarantee that such efforts could cripple Assad’s well-armed regime.

Western powers have pinned their hopes on Annan’s plan, in part because they are running out of options. NATO-style military intervention has been all but ruled out, in part because the conflict is so explosive. Syria has had a web of allegiances to powerful forces including Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Shiite powerhouse Iran, and conflict could spark a regional conflagration.

With Thursday’s relative ease in violence, many see a U.N. observer team as a key next step.

“It is difficult to fully assess the situation on the ground, in the absence of U.N. observers,” Ban told reporters. “And therefore we are working with the Security Council to send an observer team as promptly as possible.”

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Associated Press writers Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations, Frank Jordans and John Heilprin in Geneva, Matthew Lee in Washington, Jamey Keaten in Paris and Selcan Hacaoglu in Ankara, Turkey, contributed to this report.
 

Printed on Friday, April 13, 2012 as: Syrians call for anti-Assad protests during truce

Youth stand in a building damaged by tank shells in a neighborhood of Damascus, Syria on Thursday.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

BEIRUT — Syria launched a blistering assault Thursday on the outskirts of its capital, shelling residential areas and deploying snipers on rooftops as international envoy Kofi Annan demanded every fighter lay down arms in time for a U.N.-brokered cease-fire.

The bloodshed undermined already fading hopes that more than a year of violence will end soon, and France accused President Bashar Assad of trying to fool the world by accepting Annan’s deadline to pull the army back from population centers by April 10.

According to the plan, rebels are supposed to stop fighting 48 hours later, paving the way for talks to end Assad’s violent suppression of the uprising against his rule. The U.N. says more than 9,000 people have died.

“Can we be optimistic? I am not. Because I think Bashar Assad is deceiving us,” French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told reporters in Paris.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the crisis was getting worse, even though the Syrian government accepted Annan’s plan March 27. Activists have accused the regime of stepping up attacks across the country, and they described Thursday’s assault in Douma as among the worst around the capital.

“Cities, towns and villages have been turned into war zones. The sources of violence are proliferating,” Ban told the U.N. General Assembly. “The human rights of the Syrian people continue to be violated. ... Humanitarian needs are growing dramatically.”

He said the violence has not stopped and the situation on the ground “continues to deteriorate.”

Black smoke billowed from residential areas of Douma, about 8 miles outside Damascus, amid heavy cracks of gunfire. Douma, which has seen anti-Assad activities since the uprising began, has been subjected to several campaigns by Assad’s regime over the past year.

Activists said soldiers occupied Douma’s Grand Mosque, one of the largest in the area.

“No one dares to walk in the streets because of the snipers,” Syrian activist Omar Hamza told The Associated Press by telephone. “They are like stray dogs attacking sheep.”

He said the shelling went on for eight hours, damaging homes and setting shops on fire. Hamza said the government appeared to be trying to put the heavily populated suburb under control before the cease-fire goes into effect for fear that there will be massive anti-government demonstrations near the capital if regime troops withdraw.

Douma-based activist Mohammed Saeed reported that troops shelled residential areas Thursday with tanks in one of the most violent campaigns against the area since the uprising started.

He said troops were using detainees as human shields as they marched into one of the suburb’s main squares.

“Soldiers in the Ghanam Square near the vegetable market were walking behind detainees,” Saeed said via Skype. “They do that so that members of the (rebel) Free Syrian Army do not open fire at the troops.”

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also said troops clashed with army defectors in the northern towns of Hraytan and Anadan near Syria’s largest city of Aleppo.

Observers have expressed deep skepticism that Assad will abide by the peace plan, in part because large swaths of the country could slip out of his control if he pulls back the troops.

Analysts say Syria likely will to try to manipulate the terms of the plan to buy more time, or to argue that the regime cannot lay down its arms when “terrorists” are on the attack.

The regime denies that the uprising is the result of a popular will in Syria, calling it a foreign conspiracy being carried out by terrorists and gangs.

Defense Minister Dawoud Rajha said Syria was ready to cooperate with Annan’s plan “as long as long as it also puts an end to the criminal acts being committed by the armed terrorist groups.” The Syrian Foreign Ministry disputed the U.N. death toll of 9,000, saying 6,143 people — “civilians and military, women and children” — have been killed.

Hilal Khashan, political science professor at American University of Beirut, said the regime is trying to make gains on the ground before the deadline.

“What will happen afterward is something similar to a low-intensity guerrilla warfare, which can go unnoticed by the international community, while the regime tries to give the world the impression that it’s all over and the reform operations are under way,” he said.

Even as the death toll mounts, there is little prospect for international intervention of the type that helped topple Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi.

Western leaders have pinned their hopes on Annan’s diplomacy, with the U.S. and its allies unwilling to get deeply involved in another Arab nation in turmoil. Several rounds of sanctions from the U.S. and the European Union have done little to stop the bloodshed, and Syria’s main allies of Russia and China are blocking strong action at the U.N. Security Council.

Still, the regime is under great pressure to comply with Annan’s plan in some way, because Russia and China have thrown their support behind it.

Annan traveled to Moscow and Beijing to secure that support. On April 11, the former U.N. chief is expected in Iran — Syria’s last significant ally in the Middle East — for another diplomatic push on Assad’s supporters.

“Clearly, the violence is still continuing,” Annan said from Geneva, speaking to the General Assembly in a videoconference. “Alarming levels of casualties and other abuses continue to be reported daily. Military operations in civilian population centers have not stopped.”

Syria has said it is withdrawing from certain areas, and Annan said Syria has informed him of a partial withdrawal from three locations in Daraa, Idlib and Zabadani.

But witnesses and activists deny that.

Mohammed Fares, an activist in Zabadani, denied claims that troops withdrew and said the army is still in the town with checkpoints backed by tanks.

“Troops and tanks are in Zabadani and around it,” he said by telephone.

Other activists reported attacks on both Daraa and Idlib on Wednesday. Activist groups reported about two dozen dead nationwide Thursday.

In planning for a possible cease-fire, a team led by Norwegian Maj. Gen. Robert Mood arrived in Damascus to begin discussing with Syrian authorities “the eventual deployment of this U.N. supervision and monitoring mission,” Annan’s spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said.

He said the U.N. is looking for a team of 200-250 soldiers to monitor a cease-fire.

The deployment of U.N. monitors would first have to be authorized by the 15-nation Security Council.

Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said the government has not yet agreed on a timetable for peacekeepers. “But we will discuss these issues in a democratic way,” he said, “because we do want to listen to them.”As the fighting raged in the north, more Syrians fled to
neighboring Turkey, where the Foreign ministry said some 2,350 people arrived Thursday. Some 1,600 refugees arrived Wednesday and earlier Thursday, according to its disaster management agency. That pushes the number of displaced Syrians in Turkey to 22,000. 

Printed on Friday, April 6, 2012 as: Syrian regime troops keep fighting despite UN

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, second right, meets with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, fourth from front on left side, during a bilateral meeting at a hotel Saturday, March 31, 2012 in Istanbul, Turkey. Clinton is in Turkey to attend the second meeting of the “Friends of the Syrian People.”

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

ISTANBUL — A coalition of more than 70 partners, including the United States, pledged Sunday to send millions of dollars and communications equipment to Syria’s opposition groups, signaling deeper involvement in the conflict amid a growing belief that diplomacy and sanctions alone cannot end the Damascus regime’s repression.

The shift by the U.S. and its Western and Arab allies toward seeking to sway the military balance in Syria carries regional risks because the crisis there increasingly resembles a proxy conflict that could exacerbate sectarian tensions. The Syrian rebels are overmatched by heavily armed regime forces.

The summit meeting of the “Friends of the Syrian People” follows 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 at the conference in Istanbul uniformly expressed concern that Annan’s plan might backfire, speculating that Syrian President Bashar Assad would try to manipulate it 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.

“There cannot be process for the sake of process. There has to be a timeline. 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. “Because it is a clear signal that he wants to wait to see if he has totally suppressed the opposition. I think he would be mistaken to believe that. My reading is that the opposition is gaining in intensity, not losing.”

Clinton said the United States 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 last week to Annan’s plan, 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, including shelling Sunday in Homs that activists said killed more than two dozen people.

The uprising began in March 2011 as part of the Arab Spring with peaceful protests calling for political reforms. Assad’s regime sent tanks, snipers and thugs to try to quash the revolt, and many in the opposition have taken up arms to defend themselves and attack government troops. The United Nations says more than 9,000 have died.

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. One said the fund would involve several million dollars a month. It is said to be 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 delivery of humanitarian aid to Syria’s beleaguered civilians is a key provision of Annan’s plan. Clinton announced $12 million in additional aid for Syria’s people — doubling total U.S. assistance so far.

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, adding the opposition wanted arms over 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.

In Damascus, Syria blasted 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 said the meeting was 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.”

Russia and China have twice protected the Assad 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 Moammar Gadhafi, especially without U.N. support, but they are slowly overcoming doubts about assisting scattered rebel forces.

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 setting up 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.

Delegates to the Istanbul meeting 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 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 does not unite against 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” in Syria, a reference to internationally protected zones on Syrian territory that would allow the delivery of aid to civilians. However, the nations meeting in Istanbul 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.”

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.

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.

QAA, Lebanon — Syria accepted a cease-fire drawn up by U.N. envoy Kofi Annan on Tuesday, but the diplomatic breakthrough was swiftly overshadowed by intense clashes between government soldiers and rebels that sent bullets flying into Lebanon.

Opposition members accuse President Bashar Assad of agreeing to the plan to stall for time as his troops make a renewed push to kill off bastions of dissent. And the conflict just keeps getting deadlier: The U.N. said the death toll has grown to more than 9,000, a sobering assessment of a devastating year-old crackdown on the uprising that shows no sign of ending.

Annan’s announcement that Syria had accepted his peace plan was met with deep skepticism.

“We are not sure if it’s political maneuvering or a sincere act,” said Louay Safi, a member of the opposition Syrian National Council. “We have no trust in the current regime. ... We have to see that they have stopped killing civilians.”