A plan by Persian Gulf countries to funnel millions of US 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 Syrain President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, analysts say.
Although it might not be enough to turn the tide of the conflict, the money shows how Persian 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.
However, as the violence drags on, there are concerns the promised funding could lead to even more bloodshed in the al-Assad regime’s crackdown on an uprising that has killed 9,000 people since March last year 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.
Gerges 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 Persian Gulf nations is part of broader group of pledges by more than 70 countries, including the US, to send funds to dissidents inside Syria as diplomatic efforts have failed to oust al-Assad. The latest effort by UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan would have the regime pull back its troops by Tuesday, although there has been no letup in violence since Syria agreed to a ceasefire 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 al-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.
However, on Sunday, participants at a “Friends of the Syrian People” conference in Istanbul, Turkey, said Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries were 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 Persian Gulf plan on condition of anonymity because details were still being worked out, said the fund would involve several million US dollars a month.
Louay Safi, a member of the opposition Syrian National Council, said on Monday that there is a “clear commitment” by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the US 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 on 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.”