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December, 3, 2016

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Saudi Arabia, Gulf countries to fund Free Syrian Army

ISTANBUL -- Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries are creating a multimillion-dollar fund to pay salaries to members of the rebel Free Syrian Army and soldiers who defect from the regime and join opposition ranks, participants at a meeting on Syria said Sunday. One delegate described the fund as a "pot of gold" to undermine President Bashar al-Assad's army.

The large-scale plan to help Syria's badly overmatched rebels offers a solution to the international divide over whether to arm the rebels or support them through only nonlethal or humanitarian means. It also reflects frustration with months of failed diplomacy aimed at pressuring Assad to stop his crackdown on dissent, as well as hopes of forcing his ouster by shifting the military balance on the ground.

Conference participants confirmed the plan on condition of anonymity because details were still being worked out. It was unclear how the fund would be set up and monitored, or how salaries would be guaranteed. A participant said the fund would involve millions of dollars every month.

The Saudis and other Arab Gulf states have proposed giving weapons to the rebels, while the U.S. and other allies, including Turkey, have balked out of fear of fueling an all-out civil war. Washington hasn't taken any public position on the fund, but it appears that it has given tacit support to its Arab allies.

The salaries would aim to entice reluctant servicemen in Assad's military to break ranks and join the insurgency. With Syria's economy in a spiral, the Syrian opposition and U.S. and Arab officials hope soldiers will desert in large numbers and accelerate the downfall of the Assad regime.

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