Syrian Opposition Distances Itself From Islamists

The international donors group known as the "Friends of Syria" gathers in Istanbul Saturday, as aid experts warn of a ballooning disaster for millions of Syrians and neighboring states. With American non-lethal assistance increasing and pressure on the European Union to send weapons to rebel fighters, opposition leaders are faced with an embarrassing problem: the declared alliance between Islamist fighters and al-Qaida. Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon speaks with NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Secretary of State Kerry is back in Turkey today, this time for a meeting on the worsening crisis in Syria. A group called Friends of Syria will consider increasing aid to opposition factions who are trying to oust the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but the pressure for increased assistance, including calls to arm the rebels, comes amid growing concern about the presence of armed Islamist fighters in Syria.

NPR's Peter Kenyon joins us from Istanbul. Peter, thanks for being with us.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Oh, hi, Scott.

SIMON: And first, bring us up to date on the humanitarian situation. So far, is the international will to provide assistance matching the need?

KENYON: Well, here are a few glimpses of what U.N. call a humanitarian catastrophe. An estimated quarter of the Syrian population, that's several million people, are displaced from their homes. The population that is there is subject to torture, rape and murder. The U.N. refugee agency says 1.3 million have fled and they're asking for more than a billion dollar increase to deal with an anticipated three and a half million refugees by the end of this year.

So this meeting in Istanbul will aim to bridge that expected gap. We're hearing the U.S. may be ready to come up with a sizable increase in aid, partly in cash, partly in new, non-lethal military aid to the rebels. And that part is drawing fire, both from Syrian activists who want to see weapons coming in, and from Damascus and Moscow, who say such aid only encourages the extremists to use force.

So what we're seeing is increased pressure to help and very little agreement about how to help.

SIMON: Well, let me take up the question about arming opposition rebels if I could, because there are growing calls, especially in Britain and France, within the EU, for the EU to lift that arms embargo. What are the cautions?

KENYON: Well, in fact, we may be seeing some kind of a slight pause in the push to arm the rebels, at least in some of these western capitals. One of the things people are digesting is the fairly recent news that the al-Nusra Front, Islamist fighters in Syria, are lining themselves up with al-Qaida. And we know arms are already getting into these rebels, believed to be coming from Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

So there's an interesting debate going on in the west now, which is not arming the rebels, as far as we're told. As they continue to refrain from helping the more pro-Western rebels, if you will, the Islamist fighters are gaining more weapons and pushing ahead and getting more appreciation from the people facing the onslaught of the army every day.

On the other hand, analysts in the West say if you do pour more weapons into this conflict, you may only be increasing the body count and increasing the possibility that Syria might eventually fracture into two or three fragments run by different armed groups.

SIMON: From the distance of being in Istanbul, do events in Boston complicate this argument for American policy?

KENYON: I think clearly it will have an impact. Certainly the opponents - now the Russians aren't here in person, but certainly people who are opposed to arming the rebels will say this is just another reason to be extra cautious about sending weapons into a very volatile region where we have no idea how this is going to come out.

SIMON: We saw a rare moment of agreement of the Security Council this week. Russia and China joined a resolution condemning violence on all sides of the conflict. Does this portend any kind of breakthrough that's larger than that?

KENYON: Well, the resolution was a rare unanimous vote - and that can't be ignored - but it was also a non-binding statement and Russia meanwhile has shown no sign of changing its longstanding opposition to the rebel's condition that President Assad must leave power before they're going to begin reconciliation talks, which is of course the alternative to more violence.

Russia's foreign minister this week, in fact, all but dismissed the Friends of Syria meeting as a group that's talking to one faction of the opposition only and can't really get very far doing it that way. So at the moment I think you'd have to say we saw an agreement on anti-violence rhetoric but no agreement on concrete steps on how to stop that violence.

SIMON: NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul. Thanks so much.

KENYON: You're welcome, Scott.

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