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Britain pledges $800,000 to Syria opposition to topple Assad regime

Since the Syrian crisis broke out, the price of weapons has exploded in neighboring Lebanon. ITN's John Ray has met the rebels buying the weapons and the dealers selling them.


LONDON - Britain pledged $800,000 in support of Syrian opposition groups Thursday, three days ahead of a 70-nation summit that will seek to unify those against the regime of President Bashar Assad.

In a statement on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website, William Hague, Britain’s foreign secretary, said the “non-lethal” assistance would help the groups “develop themselves as a credible alternative to Assad and his regime."

The United States is still deciding what sort of support to provide, but is expected to make a similar pledge at the Friends of Syria conference in Istanbul, Turkey on Sunday.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will use the summit to pressure the country's divided opposition to unite. Without that step, there is little chance Assad's opponents can oust him without a military intervention the West clearly does not want.

Global action on Assad to step down has been largely limited so far to diplomatic and economic pressure, a stark contrast to the NATO air campaign that former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi faced in a similar uprising last year.

There is also disunity among Arab nations about what action to take. At the Arab League meeting in Baghdad on Thursday, leaders dropped a demand that Assad step down but urged him to act quickly on a U.N.-backed peace plan he has accepted.

For the first time since 1990, Arab League countries meet in Iraq's capital, but only half of the members showed up to discuss a UN proposal for Syria. NBC's Duncan Golestani reports.

Syria's opposition groups continue to demand that Assad must go and have not agreed to peace talks.

Fewer than half of the 22 Arab League heads of state are attending the summit, which is perhaps an indication of Sunni and Shiite tension in the region since the beginning of the Arab Spring.

President Barack Obama discussed providing medical supplies and communications support to the Syrian opposition with Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan this week.

The United States may back further "non-lethal" aid for the opposition at the Istanbul meeting. But as is the case in Britain, there was no talk of arming the rebel military forces such as the Free Syria Army.

A spokesman for the U.S. Department of State told msnbc.com there had been no change to its current position of exploring options.

"The United States has been trying to find a responsible way to help, using sanctions and ‘moral support,'" said Joe Holliday, a security expert at the Institute for the Study of War.

"But it has been a balance between restraint and achieving the outcome it wants, getting Assad to go," he said.

Britain has already given $715,000 worth of non-military practical support, including communications assistance and training and advice to Syrian human rights defenders.

Assad faces mounting pressure from the West, from fellow Arab nations and even from staunch ally Russia. The United Nations says over 9,000 people have died since the Syrian uprising began last year.

A report in the New York Times said refugees fleeing Syria have described an alarming rise in sectarian conflict in the country, with Sunni Muslims claiming to have been shot at by neighbors who are members President Assad’s minority Alawite sect.

Umm Nasser, 34, a pregnant woman sheltering with female residents and their dozen children in a farm building over the border in Lebanon, told the newspaper that about 15 members of her family in the village of Joussi came under fire from the nearby Alawite village of Hasbeeh two weeks ago as they tried to leave their house.

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