(MENAFN - Arab News) NEW YORK: 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 UN General Assembly.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari proposed plans to broker discussions for a political transition in Syria - amid the paralysis at the UN 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 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 UN 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.
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," US 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."
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 US 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.
Meanwhile, raging battles between Syrian government forces and rebels in the historic districts of central Aleppo have started a major fire that threatens to destroy the city's medieval souks, or markets, activists said yesterday.
The labyrinth of narrow alleys lined with shops was once a major tourist attraction, but has been the scene of near-daily firefights and shelling in recent weeks, after rebels who fought their way into the city two months ago pushed toward its center. Some activists described the overnight blaze as the worst blow yet to a district that helped make the heart of Aleppo, Syria's largest city and commercial hub, a UNESCO world heritage site. The fire started late Friday amid heavy government shelling and was still burning yesterday morning, activists said. Video posted online showed a pall of smoke hanging over the city.
One Aleppo-based activist, Ahmad Al-Halabi, estimated the fire destroyed a majority of the shops in the district.
"It's a disaster. The fire is threatening to spread to remaining shops," said Al-Halabi, speaking from the stricken area by telephone. He claimed Syrian authorities cut the water supply off the city, making it more difficult to put out the fire. He said rebels and civilians were working together to control the fire with a limited number of fire extinguishers.
"It is a very difficult and tragic situation there," he said.
The souks - a maze of vaulted passageways with shops that sell everything from foods, fabrics, perfumes, spices and artisan souvenirs - lie beneath Aleppo's towering citadel where activists say regime troops and snipers have taken up positions.
Many of the shops have wooden doors, and clothes, fabrics and leather inside helped spread the fire, activists said.
The focal point of combat yesterday was Salaheddin, a rebel stronghold on the southwest side of the city where insurgents attacked an army position, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
In New York, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton unveiled a total of 45 million (35 million euros) in new funding for humanitarian aid and to help Syria's civilian opposition.