By Arne Holverscheid:
What happened to President Bashar al-Assad? When Syria descended into civil war in 2011, he was the perfect enemy for the Western public: supported by his ally Iran, he preferred watching his people die and his country be torn apart than give in to demands for freedom, democracy and civil rights. The line between good and evil, between friend and foe seemed clear: it was the Syrian people and their democratic ambitions against Bashar Assad and his powerful friend, Tehran.[i]
Now, after almost four years of fighting, this clear line has become more and more blurred. The Syrian opposition has radicalized: extremists, among them jihadist and Islamist groups, seem to have become the dominant actors.[ii] The Free Syrian Army (FSA), once bearer of hope for Syria in the Western world, is weaker than ever. States from the Arabian Peninsula, considered allies of the United States and Western countries, have joined the fight and have been financing rebel groups in Syria. Many of these rebel groups allegedly belong to the spectrum of Islamic extremism, which is arguably just as opposed to liberal democracy as is Assad.[iii],[iv] But in this complex conflict, private donors from the wealthy state of Kuwait have played a significant part in further blurring the lines in a manner which is much less conspicuous yet leaves a lasting impact.
According to the Koran, giving alms is ordained by Allah. Donations are meant for ‘the poor and the needy…for those in bondage and in debt, in the cause of Allah, and for the wayfarer’ (Sura 9.60). Kuwaiti donors have taken their religious duty very seriously during the on-going conflict and have made substantial humanitarian contributions to ease the suffering of the Syrian population.[v] The Kuwaiti government has so far refused to go beyond financial contributions and arm Syrian rebels. But many private donors and fundraisers have decided to do exactly this, and the fairly liberal Kuwaiti political system has allowed them to advocate and conduct fundraising activities freely among the Kuwaiti public.[vi] Many within the Sunni majority even openly criticize the government for not arming the Syrian opposition, and influential Salafi figures have joined the efforts to raise money for the Syrian cause.[vii]
Donations are mostly collected using Twitter and other social media networks and are delivered personally by couriers who travel to the Turkish-Syrian border. Hundreds of millions of dollars are estimated to have entered the Syrian civil war in this way, and the proportion of funds that goes to radical groups is hard to determine. However, donors tend to support and actively encourage those rebels who are specifically aligned with their own religious or ideological beliefs. The Kuwaiti fundraising scene is dominated by extreme religious figures, and it has become clear that large donations were sent to prominent groups in the jihadi spectrum. Particularly close connections have been established with Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra. The latter is known to be an al-Qaeda affiliate, and both groups are reported to have recently come to an agreement with the Islamic State (IS), halting the fight against each other in order to challenge common enemies. In addition, the Sunni majority in Kuwait have recently developed a more sympathetic view toward the IS, resulting in a rift between donors about who to support (Al Qaeda/Al–Nusra or IS) and reflecting the overall competition between al-Qaeda/al-Nusra and IS.[viii],[ix]
In a 2013 report, Human Rights Watch identified individuals responsible for the funding of an attack on villages and civilians in the countryside of Latakia, Syria’s most prominent seaport. Fighters of Ahrar al-Sham, IS and Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar killed around 190 people and abducted over 200 civilians during the attack. Among the six primary figures who financed and organised the ambush were three Kuwaitis who actively used Twitter and YouTube to fundraise for the planned attack. One of them, Sheikh Hajjej al-Ajami, even travelled to the Latakia region and met the jihadists for whom he was fundraising. This journey suggests a high degree of cooperation between private donors and rebel groups and the possibility that donors are able to exercise control over the rebel groups they support.
Examples like this show the effect private donors are having on the Syrian civil war. Under the protection of Kuwait’s liberal and constitutional monarchy, they raise funds for extremists and jihadists who are aligned with their ideological beliefs and who are reportedly linked to acts of terrorism. By supporting these groups and strengthening their position, the donors implant their radical Salafi view of Islam into the conflict, fostering sectarianism among the Syrian opposition and reducing the chances for moderate forces to gain the upper hand. They also exacerbate the on-going competition between al-Qaeda and the IS over support from such donors, and are arguably partly responsible for the recent upswing in sympathy for the IS among the Sunni community in Kuwait. With the increasing friction between rebel groups and the apparent rivalry between two of the largest terrorist organizations involved in the conflict, a peaceful reunification seems less and less likely.
Now, after almost four years, who is the enemy in Syria? For the Western world, “Assad” no longer seems to be the only enemy. The conflict lines in Syria have blurred, extremists and terrorists have multiplied and the Alawite regime almost seems like a good alternative. The exemplary case of Kuwaiti private donors shows that when determining friend and foe, the situation is extremely complex. Syria has become far more than a proxy war between world powers. Private self-interests as well as opposing religious and ideological beliefs play an increasingly significant role in determining Syria’s conflict lines, conflict lines which must be understood in a wider regional context.
Arne Holverscheid is an undergraduate student of Political Science, Middle Eastern Studies and History at Ludwig Maximilians University Munich. He is currently interning for the International Center for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya, Israel. His interests include terrorism funding, radical Islamic ideologies and the history of terrorism. Twitter: @AHolverscheid.
This article is part of a Strife series on financing terror. Over the next few weeks Strife will feature other articles that focus on different ways of financing terrorism. Next, Claire Mennessier will examine the involvement of Pakistan in financing terror groups, and the motivations and challenges presented by this involvement.
[i] “The long road to Damascus: There are signs that the Syrian regime may become still more violent”, The Economist, February 11, 2012. http://www.economist.com/node/21547305.
[ii] Jonah Schulhofer-Wohl, “How the U.S. fragmented Syria’s rebels”, The Washington Post, September 22, 2014. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2014/09/22/how-the-u-s-fragmented-syrias-rebels/.
[iii] Jamie Dettmer, “Syria’s Saudi Jihadist Problem”, The Daily Beast, December 16, 2013. http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/12/16/syria-s-saudi-jihadist-problem.html.
[iv] Mariam Karouny, “Saudi edges Qatar to control Syrian rebel support”, Reuters, May 31, 2013. http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/05/31/us-syria-crisis-saudi-insight-idUSBRE94U0ZV20130531.
[v] “Kuwait launches Syria relief campaign”, Al Arabiya English, January 13, 2014. http://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/middle-east/2014/01/13/Kuwait-s-emir-appeals-for-Syrian-relief-aid.html.
[vi] Sylvia Westall and Mahmoud Harby, “Insight: Kuwaitis campaign privately to arm Syrian rebels”, Reuters, June 27 2013. http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/06/27/us-syria-kuwait-insight-idUSBRE95P0TG20130627.
[vii] Lori Plotkin Boghardt, “The Terrorist Funding Disconnect with Qatar and Kuwait”, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, May 2, 2014. http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/the-terrorist-funding-disconnect-with-qatar-and-kuwait.
[viii] Joby Warrick, “Private donations give edge to Islamists in Syria, officials say”, The Washington Post, September 21, 2013. http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/private-donations-give-edge-to-islamists-in-syria-officials-say/2013/09/21/a6c783d2-2207-11e3-a358-1144dee636dd_story.html.
[ix] Elizabeth Dickinson, “Kuwait: the crisis in Syria comes home”, European Council on Foreign Relations, October 2, 2014. http://www.ecfr.eu/article/commentary_kuwait_the_crisis_in_syria_comes_home323.