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.