Gulf plan could be blank check for Syrian rebels

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By BRIAN MURPHY and ELIZABETH A. KENNEDY, Associated Press

BEIRUT (AP) — A Gulf plan to funnel millions of dollars a month to Syrian rebels — payments earmarked for salaries for the fighters — could amount to a blank check for the opposition to build up an arsenal against President Bashar Assad's forces, analysts say.

Although it may not be enough to turn the tide of the conflict, the money shows how Gulf nations are using their enormous oil wealth to influence the direction of the Arab Spring and exert their status as a growing political force and counterweight to rival Iran.

But as the violence drags on, there are concerns the promised funding could lead to even more bloodshed in the Assad regime's crackdown on an uprising that has killed 9,000 people since March 2011 and appears to be descending into a civil war with dangerous sectarian overtones.

"My fear is that it will be a turning point, but not for the rebels," said Fawaz Gerges, Director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics. He said the conflict could become a "war by proxy" with powerful international players.

"No one knows what the cost of such a conflict will be on Syria and the region," he said.

The money from the Gulf nations is part of broader group of pledges by more than 70 countries, including the United States, to send funds to dissidents inside Syria as diplomatic efforts have failed to oust Assad. The latest effort by U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan would have the regime pull back its troops by April 10, although there has been no letup in violence since Syria agreed to a cease-fire last week.

Desperately outgunned rebel fighters bemoan their inferior arms and the rising costs of weapons, and say only powerful munitions will allow them to face Assad's large, professional army.

Details of the money pipeline are unclear. There is still no agreement on sending weapons directly to the rebels, in part because the opposition is loosely organized and it is not clear who exactly would get the weapons.

Western countries have refused to arm the rebels, saying it could usher in a civil war.

But on Sunday, participants at a "Friends of the Syrian People" conference in Istanbul said Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries are creating a fund to pay members of the rebel Free Syrian Army and soldiers who defect from the regime and join opposition ranks.

One participant who confirmed the Gulf plan on condition of anonymity because details were still being worked out said the fund would involve several million dollars a month.

Louay Safi, a member of the opposition Syrian National Council, told The Associated Press on Monday that there is a "clear commitment" by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United States for a fund to "help squeeze the Assad regime."

"A great deal" of the fund would go for humanitarian aid, the opposition's communication needs, but some would also go for the Free Syrian Army, he said.

The money is said to be earmarked for salaries, but it was not clear whether there would be any effort to prevent the diversion of money to weapons purchases — a development that would bring new calls of "foreign meddling" by the regime.

Syria, which says the uprising is being driven by a foreign conspiracy, not popular will, dismissed the Istanbul gathering as a failure Monday.

The state-run Tishrin daily said the decision to fund the rebels "demonstrates the size of foreign involvement in fueling the events in Syria."

The upheaval in Syria presents an opportunity for the Gulf's Sunni rulers to bolster their influence and possibly leave Shiite powerhouse Iran without the critical alliances that flow through Damascus. Assad's regime, which is allied strongly with Iran, is led by the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiism.

Syria's ties with the Gulf nations have been strained in the past; Assad once called Saudi King Abdullah and other Arab leaders "half men" for being critical of Hezbollah over the 34-day war between the Shiite militant group and Israel in 2006.

Now, the Gulf nations are leading the charge to oust Assad.

Although the rebels have said they are running low on cash and weapons, Damascus has a steady supply of arms from Russia and the backing of Iran. Money from the Gulf states could go toward evening out the balance.

The Gulf nations have used their power and money in different ways during the Arab Spring.

They stuck by Egypt's Hosni Mubarak until the very end of his regime, but sided against Libya's Moammar Gadhafi. Qatar opened money channels for Libyan opposition forces and helped coordinate the sale of rebel-held oil at a critical moment. Qatar and the United Arab Emirates also contributed to the NATO-led military mission that targeted Libyan troops and their arsenals.

At home, Gulf leaders have opened the vaults to try to buy off possible dissent with a flood of new civil servant posts and handouts. In Saudi Arabia alone, nearly $100 billion has been earmarked to boost services and jobs.

When Shiites rose up against the Sunni monarchy in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia sent troops to help the tiny Gulf nation crush the protests — a move that was denounced by many as a sign of deep hypocrisy.

The funding pledges for Syria's rebels could become the most vivid example of the Gulf's checkbook strategies amid the region's upheavals. It's seen in Gulf capitals as an investment to put their stamp on a possible post-Assad government and deliver a blow to rival Iran, which is not only an ally of Assad but a patron of Hezbollah, as well.

Last week, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, strongly opposed foreign intervention in Syria and made clear Iran would stand by Assad. For months, Washington has accused Tehran of helping Damascus in its crackdown.

While Iran would undoubtedly suffer a serious setback if Assad falls, the makeup of any successor leadership is still far from certain and the Gulf's increased ante with the rebels could further complicate the picture.

The Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia, would likely favor Syria's Sunni majority and encourage a stronger voice by conservative clerics and others. That vision could run into conflict with Washington and its Western allies, which could seek a more broad-based outreach to try to avoid the sectarian tensions that tore apart Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Mustafa Alani, a regional affairs analyst at the Gulf Research Center based in Geneva, said the promises for Gulf funding may be framed in vague terms, such as "salaries" for rebels, but the apparent aim is to provide a pipeline for arms purchases.

"You need money to buy weapons and you need weapons to fight this conflict. With Gulf money, there is no shortage of ways to buy weapons on the black market," he said. "The Gulf states see this as a lesser evil, a way around the international paralysis over Syria. The Gulf leaders think it has reached a point that was intolerable and if that means indirect funding for weapons, then that is what it will take."

In Iran, the Gulf aid to the Syrian opposition has been portrayed as Saudi Arabia and others doing the bidding for their Western allies — with one top military official calling for the rebels' backers to be "punished."

"It is the time to punish foreign forces involved in the Syrian unrest," the hard-line news website Hezbollahnews.com quoted Masoud Jazayeri, a senior figure in the powerful Revolutionary Guard and deputy head of Iran's Joint Chiefs of Staff.

But Jazayeri gave no hints whether Iran would step up its aid to Assad's regime in response to the Gulf decision.

Ahmad Mousavi, a former Iranian ambassador to Damascus and adviser to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, said Gulf states and others are "playing the role that the United States has ordered."

"Iran will support Syria to overcome this challenge," he told The Associated Press.

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Murphy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Dale Gavlak in Amman, Jordan, and Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran, contributed to this report.

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