MORE pressure has been piled on David Cameron with a poll showing most Britons are opposed to arming the Syrian rebels while Bashar al Assad, the Syrian President, warned the West would "pay the price" for any such move by boosting terrorists in Europe's backyard.

As the G8 summit began with a round table working dinner at a heavily guarded golf resort beside Lough Erne in Northern Ireland, the Comres survey showed only 17% of people supported the UK Government arming the Syrian opposition to the Assad regime but 53% were opposed.

Indeed, the online snapshot of 2000 adults showed 56% of respondents believed the rebels should not be armed by Britain because of the risk of the weapons falling into the hands of al Qaeda extremists.

While the gathering of world leaders was supposed to focus on boosting trade and tackling tax evasion, it was overshadowed by the pall of the deepening conflict in Syria.

The Prime Minister acknowledged there was "clearly a big difference between the Russian position and the position of Britain, France and America and many others" but he urged people to build on "common ground", ie creating a peace process and a transition to a new regime in Syria. Yet the atmosphere in picturesque Fermanagh rekindled memories of the Cold War with the US, the UK and France on one side and Russia on the other. Despite a bilateral meeting between Presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin, the diplomatic gulf appeared as wide as ever.

Last week, stung by recent victories for Mr Assad's forces and their support from Hezbollah guerrillas, Washington said it would step up military aid to the rebels including automatic weapons, light mortars and rocket-propelled grenades.

At the weekend, Mr Putin, whose government has been arming the Syrian regime, left no one in any doubt when he told a Downing Street press conference the rebels were cannibalistic extremists who "kill their enemies and eat their organs".

In response, Francois Hollande, the French President, noted: "How can we allow Russia to continue to deliver arms to the Assad regime when the opposition receives very few and is being massacred?"

As differences were aired Mr Cameron tried to sound upbeat, placing the emphasis not on arming the rebels but "helping, assisting and advising" them. Yet domestic opposition against Britain sending weapons to Syria appeared to be growing.

As well as opposition from inside the Coalition – Nick Clegg is said to be strongly opposed – there is deep hostility on the Conservative backbenchers, and Boris Johnson, the London Mayor, yesterday placed himself at its head, saying: "We can't use Syria as an arena for geopolitical point-scoring or muscle-flexing and we won't get a ceasefire by pressing weapons into the hands of maniacs."

At Westminster, William Hague stressed how there were "no palatable options" but appeared to suggest arming the rebels could be contained.

Pointing to non-lethal equipment already delivered, he noted: "We have no evidence that that has fallen into the wrong hands in any sense and we have been supplying it for some time, so bear that in mind."

The Foreign Secretary warned that Britain would be affected by any collapse in the Syrian opposition.

"It is the worst human tragedy of our times; it's on a trajectory to get worse. I don't want to understate in any way the severity and bleakness of this crisis," he explained.

"Of course, it's not easy to take any decision to send arms into a conflict. It's also not easy to take a decision to allow people to be killed who are faced by a much superior arms and who may be driven to radicalism and extremism by being placed in the situation, so it's a classic dilemma," he added.

Meanwhile, President Assad told a German newspaper that Europe had no alternative but to support his regime because support for the rebels would spread terrorism across its continent.

"If the Europeans deliver weapons," he said, "the backyard of Europe will become terrorist and Europe will pay the price for it."

Asked about claims by the US, UK and French Governments that Syria had used chemical weapons, Mr Assad replied: "If Paris, London and Washington had even one piece of evidence for their claims, they would have shown this to the world."