Syrian residents flee the fighting in Kurnaz, close to the western city of Hama, on January 27, 2013
Syrian residents drive motorcycles and cars to flee during fighting between rebels and regime forces in the village of Kurnaz, close to the western city of Hama, on January 27, 2013. © Aamir Qureshi - AFP
Syrian residents flee the fighting in Kurnaz, close to the western city of Hama, on January 27, 2013
Marc Burleigh, AFP
Last updated: January 28, 2013

Syrian regime strikes back against outgunned rebels

The Syrian opposition appealed Monday for hundreds of millions of dollars (euros) to step up the revolt against Bashar al-Assad, as the president asserted his forces had made "significant gains" in the conflict.

At an international meeting in Paris, the main opposition Syrian National Coalition (SNC) said it needs $500 million (370 million euros) in funding to set up an alternative government.

"With a state and a society collapsing, it is the Islamist groups that could gain ground if we do not do what we have to do," France's Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius warned the meeting.

"This conference has to send a clear signal, (that) it has one concrete objective: give the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) the means to act."

But the credibility of the opposition alliance has been damaged by mounting evidence that extremist Islamists are playing a central role in the campaign against Assad.

George Sabra, head of the SNC, the main body in the opposition coalition, said Assad's opponents were desperately in need of cash and arms.

"We need a minimum of 500 million dollars to be able to establish a government," he said. "And we need weapons, weapons and more weapons."

Arab and Western "Friends of Syria" agreed in December to provide a total of $145 million of support for the opposition, two-thirds of it from Saudi Arabia, but the money has yet to be delivered.

The SNC was created in November with its various components saying they would fight under a unified military command.

But some hardline groups have declined to join the coalition, saying their goal is the creation of an Islamic state to replace Assad's regime.

A top humanitarian official also appealed for funding on Monday, warning that the United Nations will be forced to cut already reduced food rations to hundreds of thousands of Syrians unless a huge cash injection is found.

"We are putting it squarely to the donors, more cuts are likely," humanitarian operations director John Ging said ahead of a donor conference in Kuwait on Wednesday.

UN leader Ban Ki-moon will seek more than $1.5 billion in new cash pledges at the Kuwait conference.

Assad, meanwhile, said his troops have gained the upper hand against rebels in the 22-month conflict and could win in "two weeks" should Turkey stop its support for insurgents, a Lebanese newspaper reported.

"The army has a very large lead on the ground and has achieved significant gains," Al-Akhbar quoted him as saying. "If the Turkish border was closed to tackle the smuggling of arms and militants, this matter would be resolved in only two weeks."

-- Obama 'wrestling' with Syria decision --


On the ground, rebels on Monday took over one of four key suspension bridges in Deir Ezzor, which straddle the Euphrates river and connect the eastern city to Hasakeh province further north, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

"The bridge is important because that it allows the army to send troops and supplies to Hasakeh," Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP by phone.

Fighting also erupted in a southern district of Damascus, while the army bombed rebel positions on the capital's outskirts, said the Observatory, which gave a toll of at least 61 people killed nationwide, including 23 civilians.

The United Nations says more than 60,000 people have been killed since the start of the conflict in March 2011.

On the international front, US President Barack Obama said in an interview published on Monday that he was wrestling with a decision on whether the US should get involved to resolve the Syrian conflict.

"In a situation like Syria, I have to ask, can we make a difference in that situation?" he told the New Republic magazine.

"Would a military intervention have an impact? ... What would be the aftermath of our involvement on the ground? Could it trigger even worse violence or the use of chemical weapons? What offers the best prospect of a stable post-Assad regime?"

"And what I have to constantly wrestle with is where and when can the United States intervene or act in ways that advance our national interest, advance our security, and speak to our highest ideals and sense of common humanity."

Israel, meanwhile, moved two batteries of its vaunted Iron Dome missile defence system to the north on Sunday in case of military action against Syria or Lebanon, a security source told AFP.

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