Thu, Apr 19, 2012 - Page 6 News List

Gulf fund’s problems highlight Syria aid challenge

AP, Washington

Two weeks after their bold promise, Saudi Arabia and other wealthy Arab Gulf states have yet to start distributing money from a multimillion-dollar fund designed to prop up Syria’s rebels and entice defections from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s army, Syrian opposition members and international officials say.

The cash program was outlined this month at a conference in Istanbul, where representatives of the US and more than 60 other nations met to strengthen Syria’s opposition and increase pressure on the al-Assad regime. Hoping to crack al-Assad’s support, Washington and its Arab partners seized on the plan as a path forward even as they disagreed on the idea of giving weapons to badly outgunned Syrian rebels.

However, the fund’s implementation is already beset by problem — basically, how to get the money there and how to make sure it gets to the right people. There is no way to monitor where the money goes as the country veers toward civil war. Because the rebels hold no territory and struggle even to maintain communications inside and outside Syria, there is no clear way to deliver the money.

The problems underscore the larger problem to providing aid of any kind to the Syrian rebellion. US President Barack Obama’s administration recently signed off on US$12 million in enhanced communications, medical and other “nonlethal” assistance to the opposition, but it is unclear what goods are making their way into Syria and by what means.

Even the recipients are largely unknown, with US officials themselves saying they are still trying to get to know Syria’s armed and political opposition better.

Other Arab and European countries have made similar pledges of aid that Syrians say they haven’t seen. In an effort to ramp up the pressure on al-Assad further, France is convening a meeting today of countries leading the call for the Syrian leader’s ouster. US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and the foreign ministers of Qatar and Turkey are among the invitees, a French diplomatic source said.

However, no significant policy changes are expected at the gathering, according to officials with knowledge of the planning. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss publicly the planning for the meeting.

The Saudis and other Gulf states have a history of promising lavish aid packages to other Arab populations, in particular the Palestinians, and not always delivering. The Arab Gulf states are committed to delivering the money to Syria, a senior Arab official involved in the planning insisted. He spoke on condition of anonymity because details were still being worked out.

The problem of accountability presents a conundrum for Arab and Western governments alike. They want their money to reach the right people and support the cause, yet lack the delivery address, bank accounts and clear supply routes to make it happen. If it takes too long for accounting standards to be established, the al-Assad government could destroy the opposition in the meantime and deal the most powerful setback yet to rebels after more than a year of Arab Spring uprisings.

Sameer Mashaar, a finance official for the opposition Syrian National Council, confirmed that the Gulf fund still does not exist in practice, while acknowledging that his group receives some money from the region through unofficial channels.

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