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Gulf plan could fund Syrian rebels

BEIRUT — 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 to be earmarked for salaries, but it was not clear whether there would be any effort to prevent purchase of weapons.