PARIS – France has been sneaking large sums of cash — $2 million in all — to civilians in Syria to help rebel-held towns rebuild bakeries, dispose of garbage and set up a police force.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius met Wednesday with representatives of about 20 countries to share details about the secret French aid program and encourage others to join it. Five people from local Syrian revolutionary groups that have received the secret funds also attended.
A dozen countries have started or are starting such programs, a French official close to the program told journalists.
The United States is among the nations funneling aid to local Syrian councils that provide essential services but it was unclear whether Washington was using the cloak-and-dagger route the French have opted for to hand over cash.
When questioned, the U.S. Embassy said its two representatives at the Paris gathering "focused on ways to better coordinate our assistance."
The French program, which started in early September, aims to help people in rebel-held zones survive, maintain institutions and bolster the civilian face of the Syrian revolution to prepare for a post-President Bashar Assad era.
The French official said after three border handovers of funds, France is now looking for a more efficient way to deliver the money, hopefully thorough a non-governmental organization. The official was not authorized to speak publicly about the issue.
"In concrete terms, we want to provide aid to a segment of the population that is not covered by the traditional humanitarian channels," Fabius told the gathering, adding that there was a risk that the Assad regime interferes with aid shipments going through standard channels.
"And, little by little, as these civilian revolutionary committees are elected, these zones are run freely and show what the Syria of tomorrow will be after Bashar has gone," Fabius told reporters.
The Syrian conflict began as peaceful protests in March 2011 against Assad's regime. Since then, more than 33,000 have been killed, activists say. France has been a leader among western nations seeking the ouster of Assad, pressing for EU sanctions among other things.
The French direct aid is also aimed at easing frustrations among civilians because of the lack of action by the international community, which is blocked in the U.N. Security Council by Syrian allies Russia and China.
The foreign minister conceded that the budget so far for the direct aid — a tenth of the €20 million ($26 million) France is contributing to the rebel war effort in Syria — is small. But, he said, it has assured that more than 300,000 people get bread by renovating three industrial bakeries.
But the task has been onerous and risky.
One official with knowledge of the project's operation said tangible proof of need in a certain town is first established. Then, a French envoy meets at a Syrian border with a carefully chosen member of a local committee.
"The aid is handed over directly with a very strict follow-up," the official said.
Another official, also not authorized to speak publicly about the project, said the meeting point is at the Turkish-Syrian border.
"We wanted to quickly show that it is feasible and possible," the first official said. The Syrian representatives have provided photos of renovated bakeries, road work and other improvements to daily life. "We proved it is important and very useful."
Osman Badawi, a pharmacist in the Syrian city of Maraat el Noaman who attended at the Paris meeting, said what his town wants most is a no-fly zone that nations backing the opposition have been unable to deliver. He said that 30-40 homes per day are destroyed by barrels of TNT dropped on the town by government planes.
Fabius said besides using the so-called barrel bombs — containers packed with TNT — on civilians, the Syrian regime was also using cluster bombs.
The Assad regime has "entered a new phase in the violence by using MIG (aircraft) and dropping barrels of TNT," Fabius said.
Badawi, speaking through a translator, said the French direct aid was used to repair a bombed school and a police station, and he's hoping the Paris meeting will produce more funds.
The fighting in Syria has driven tens of thousands from their homes. U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said Wednesday by telephone that an estimated 2.5 million Syrians, including refugees, are in need of help.
Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.
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