UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Efforts to draw together the fragmented foes of Syrian President Bashar Assad could lead to direct talks between the leader's regime and his opponents, a key official said after talks on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari on Friday proposed plans to broker discussions for a political transition in Syria — amid the paralysis at the U.N. Security Council which has cast a pall over the annual gathering of world leaders in New York.
Zebari told The Associated Press in an interview that he made the offer to bring together Syria's regime and opposition at a meeting Friday between nine representatives of anti-Assad groups and the Friends of Syria — a coalition which includes the United States, the European Union and the Arab League.
He acknowledged that the U.N. and Arab League joint envoy on Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, would need to take the plan forward.
Establishing a more coherent opposition is seen as a means of increasing pressure on the Syrian leadership amid Russia and China's decisions to veto three Western-backed resolutions aimed at forcing Assad to end the violence.
Rebels on Friday made their broadest assault yet to drive Assad's forces out of Aleppo, Syria's largest city. Activists claim that since the 18-month-old conflict began, more than 30,000 people have been killed in the fighting.
Syria's opposition has been criticized as hopelessly fractured and unable to coalesce around a transition plan that was adopted by members of the U.N. Security Council in Geneva over the summer, though Western officials say they are beginning to see tentative signs of progress.
Revolutionary councils in cities including Damascus, Homs, Aleppo, Idlib and Deir al-Zour are becoming increasingly organized, U.S. officials insist. In Idlib, in northwestern Syria, and Deir al-Zour, in the country's east, the local councils are taking charge of municipal duties, restoring power supplies and cleaning streets.
Talks Friday focused on efforts to boost cooperation between the rival groups, provide them with millions of dollars more in non-lethal equipment, and help them cement authority in areas freed from the Assad regime's control.
"It is encouraging to see some progress toward greater opposition unity, but we all know there is more work to be done," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the meeting.
Mouaz Moustafa, a 27-year-old activist with the Washington-based "Coalition for a Democratic Syria," which lobbies on behalf of the civilian councils and was involved in the talks, said the local groups could provide the roots of a post-Assad Syria if they are supported with funding.
"It will be undermined if it's not coupled with financial support," he said. "You have civilian councils right now. If you don't help them, you miss an opportunity. Without money, they lose credibility, viability and power."
He said in one instance, France had supplied about $13,000 to the Maarat al-Nuaman civilian council, in northwestern Syria, which allowed them to clean streets, rebuild a bread factory and pay for policemen.
Moustafa said the councils were crucial for the country to re-emerge under civilian rule. If they failed, it would risk emboldening military commanders to create their own fiefdoms in liberated areas, or Islamic extremists — better armed and with money — to set up their own power centers.
U.S. officials acknowledged the importance of helping civilian activists, rather than fighters, to prepare to provide services when the country's leadership falls.
"People with guns who don't know how to have bread baked are quickly going to lose credibility on the street. People with guns who can't make the lights come back on are going to quickly lose credibility on the street," said a senior U.S. official, who was not authorized to publicly discuss details of the talks.
During talks Friday, Clinton pledged $15 million in new non-lethal equipment — mainly communications equipment — and $30 in million humanitarian assistance to Syria's opposition. In total, the U.S. has offered $130 million in humanitarian supplies and about $40 million in equipment such as including satellite-linked computers, telephones and cameras. Britain and France have also offered millions of dollars worth of aid supplies and equipment.
At the General Assembly on Friday, Turkey's foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu warned of the risks that Syria's civil war could spread to other Middle East nations. "The Syrian regime deploys every instrument to turn the legitimate struggle of the Syrian people into a sectarian war, which will engulf the entire region into flames," he said.
On Saturday, nations including Uruguay, Denmark, Portugal, Sudan and Angola were scheduled to address the assembly.
Associated Press writers Edie Lederer and John Daniszewski contributed to this report.