BEIRUT – Syrian opposition leaders pleaded Monday for funds and political backing from the international community as France warned that extremists could prevail in Syria if nations fail to honour their pledges of support.
The warning from French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius reflects growing concern over the rising power of Islamic militant groups that have joined the rebels fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime.
“Let us be clear. In the face of the collapse of a state and society, it is the extremist groups that risk gaining ground if we do not act as we should,” Fabius told envoys from more than 50 nations gathered in Paris.
“Chaos is not tomorrow, it is today, and we need to end it. We need to end it in a peaceful way and that means increased and concrete support to the Syrian National Coalition,” an umbrella group for the opposition.
Islamic militants have been the most organized fighters battling government troops in the 22-month-old conflict in which more than 60,000 people have been killed.
Their growing prominence has fueled fears that Muslim radicals might try to hijack the revolt, and has contributed to the West’s hesitance to equip the opposition with sophisticated weapons.
The opposition coalition was formed in November, largely in response to a call by the West for the fragmented Syrian opposition to unite. More than 100 countries have backed the umbrella group, decreeing it the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people. France was the first to confer that recognition.
The coalition replaced an early opposition grouping of exiled Syrians, whose credibility was compromised by infighting and criticism that they were out of touch with the Syrians fighting the Assad regime.
But members of the Syrian opposition lament that beyond the verbal recognition, very little aid has trickled in since the group was formed.
More than $100 million was promised at the Friends of Syria group’s conference in December in Marrakech, Morocco, but it’s unclear how much has been sent.
France, which has spearheaded the formation of a viable opposition in exile, wants to make sure that backing that has been promised actually materializes.
“We have to give the Syrian people a clear signal: We are at your side,” Fabius said.
“If we don’t give the means to the Syrian people to go achieve their freedom, there is a risk, and we all know it exists, that massacres and antagonisms amplify, and that extremism and terrorism prevail.”
The most dominant of the extremist groups is Jabhat al-Nusra. The U.S. has declared it a terrorist organization, claiming it has ties to al-Qaida.
The group claimed responsibility Monday for a suicide car bombing that reportedly killed dozens of Assad’s loyalists last week.
In a statement posted online, it said one of its suicide bombers detonated a car bomb Jan. 21 at the headquarters of a pro-government militia in the central province of Hama. It said the bomber drove a truck packed with explosives to the militia’s complex in the town of Salamiya and blew himself up “to give the tyrannical regime a taste” of violence it has been inflicting on the Syrian people.
Activists said at least 42 people, mostly pro-Assad militiamen, were killed in the blast. The government did not say how many people were killed, although two days after the bombing, state-run SANA news agency published photographs of what it said was a funeral procession for the blast’s victims. In one of the photographs, a dozen men are seen standing behind 11 caskets, wrapped into a Syrian flag.
Jabhat al-Nusra has previously targeted government institutions in Damascus with suicide bombers and has led successful attacks on military bases and strategic territory in the country’s north.
The growing dominance of Islamists is worrisome for Western officials who fear that any weapons sent to the rebels could fall in the wrong hands.
Their reluctance to send cash and weapons has frustrated the Syrian opposition, which has yet to form a provisional government as it said it would do.
“Time is not on our side,” said Riad Seif, a Syrian coalition vice-president, said at the Paris meeting. “The Syrian people are angry at this dubious silence of the world.”
“If we announce a government without a budget, without a safe zone (inside the country), it makes no sense,” he said.
Another coalition vice-president, Georges Sabra, told The Associated Press that it would take at least $500 million to set up a provisional government. “Otherwise, what can this government do?” he asked.
The Paris meeting was a run-up to Wednesday’s donor conference in Kuwait.
In Beirut, U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said the situation in Syria was getting worse — that entire neighbourhoods were being destroyed by the fighting.
Amos, who just returned from Syria, also reported human rights abuses.
“I listen to the women who talk about what happened to them, to their families, the sexual abuse they have faced,” Amos told the AP in an interview.
“The indiscriminate shelling. The indiscriminate killing of people. This is a conflict that is happening essentially in towns and cities,” she said.
International efforts to stop the bloodshed in Syria have repeatedly failed and both sides fighting in the civil war are convinced they can defeat the other on the battlefield. More than 500,000 Syrians have fled to neighbouring countries to escape the fighting and hundreds of thousands of others are displaced within their homeland.
On Monday, activists said troops battled rebels in several towns and villages around Damascus, including in Daraya, Arbeen and Zabadani. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the regime’s forces also shelled several of the capital’s suburbs.
Some areas outside Damascus have been rebel strongholds since the uprising began. In recent months, the rebels have used them as a base from which they have been trying to push into central Damascus, the seat of Assad’s power.
In the north, troops clashed with rebels in al-Hasaka province along Syria’s border with Turkey, the Observatory said, adding that at least 10 rebels were killed in the fighting that erupted Sunday after the opposition fighters attacked a government checkpoint. Activists also reported fighting in the eastern Deir el-Zour province and in central Syria.
Ganley reported from Paris. Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.