Why Kuwaiti Cash For Syrian Rebels Is Drying Up

Infighting among Syrian rebel leaders and radicalization of certain groups are dissuading private donors in Kuwait and elsewhere in the Gulf, who'd backed the Syrian opposition since 2011.

A bank in Kuwait City
A bank in Kuwait City
Benjamin Barthe

KUWAIT CITY — At the entrance of the Kuwait City villa belonging to former Islamist parliament member Jamaan Herbash, there is a sign encouraging people to support Liwa al-Tawhid, one of the main rebel brigades of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. The fundraising is sponsored by a dozen religious dignitaries and politicians whose bearded faces are displayed on medallions. At the bottom of the sign, there are addresses where potential donors can send contributions. Requested sum: seven million dinars, or $24 million.

“We launched this campaign at the beginning of this year, when the army was closing in on Aleppo and clashes broke out between the rebels and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL),” says Jamaan Herbash, referring to the most violent Jihadist groups operating in Syria. “But for now, we haven’t even received 500,000 dinars. People are tired of this endless war. They don’t want to fund fratricidal killings.”

As the leader of Hadas, the local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, Herbash receives us in his Diwaniyya, a kind of vast room lined with benches that serves as headquarters for political movements in Kuwait. Since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in 2011, he has made several calls for donations on social networks, first for humanitarian purposes, and then for military operations. Though he doesn’t say the exact amount of money he has managed to raised, he says that most of it has gone towards Liwa al-Tawhid, a moderate Islamist group and ally of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the branch of the uprising that is supported by Western powers and their Arab allies.

Videos of battles

Following Herbash’s example, dozens of personalities associated with the Kuwaiti Islamist opposition became “freelance” financiers of the anti-Assad fighters beginning in 2012. Motivated to act after seeing rebel videos of battles, local citizens and their neighbors in the Persian Gulf began steadily sending in donations. It was fueled by the savagery of the repression but also by religious considerations. Some of the contributors, being good orthodox Sunni Muslims, regard Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, which is mainly Alawite, a branch of impious Shiism.

Collected by hand during specially organized receptions in the Diwaniyyas, or transferred into Kuwaiti bank accounts, the funds have been sent to armed groups in Syria over the past three years. The total of this private aid is clearly less than state payments by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the two main arms suppliers of the rebellion.

Fragmentation of the rebellion

The abundance of channels and the pedigree of its leaders have played a significant role in the rebellion’s fragmentation and radicalization. Most Kuwaiti contributors are Salafists and tend to confuse Jihad and revolution. Some are not scared of financing groups linked, directly or indirectly, to al-Qaeda, such as the al-Nusra Front, the ISIL and Ahrar al-Cham.

“People started supporting extremists, inadvertently or because of a lack of information,” says Jamaan Herbash, who is reluctant to accuse his counterparts. “With 150,000 deaths in three years, it was expected. In the chaos that prevails on the ground, clashes between armed groups tend to get mixed up.”

During the summer of 2013, several Salafist sheiks led by Kuwait University Islamic law professor Shafi al-Ajmi raised money in preparation for an attack on the Syrian coastline. This operation — led by the ISIL, the al-Nusra Front and Suqur al-Izz, a battalion made up of Saudi — led to the massacres of about 200 Alawite civilians.

A few weeks earlier, on his Twitter account, Shafi al-Ajmi promised to “drive out the Safavids,” a pejorative term that, in the Salafist vocabulary, means Iranians and, by extension, Shiites. Another extremist, sheik Hajjaj Al-Ajami, appeared in a photo a few months ago alongside Abu Omar Al Chechani, one of the military heads of the ISIL, in northern Syria. The mantra of these warmongers is a saying attributed to the Prophet: “He who helps a Jihadist becomes a Jihadist.”

A discredited opposition

At the beginning of the year, hostilities against the ISIL changed the situation dramatically. The thousands of rebel deaths in this internal war have accelerated disaffection of donors. Fundraisers such as Jamaan Herbash, who has been in the region of Aleppo four times with cases full of cash, have had to give up traveling to Syria for security reasons. Shafi al-Ajmi now spends his time on Twitter vilifying the ISIL. “He’s very affected by the dissension inside the opposition,” one of his close friends says on condition of anonymity. “He has put his financing activities on a hold. He is concentrating on his university work.”

Growing discredit of radical organizations operating in Syria has also led the Kuwaiti authorities to take a tougher stand. Under pressure from the United States, a law prohibiting financing of terrorist organizations was passed last year. Saudi Arabia joined these pressures against Jihad supporters in Syria, who now risk tough prison sentences.

Despite their popularity, some Kuwaiti Salafist financiers have received phone calls from security services, which are keeping an eye on them. The former MP Walid al-Tabtabai, for instance, had his passport confiscated. “At the beginning of the uprising, it was impossible for the government to contain this phenomenon,” Kuwaiti analyst Ghanim al-Najjar explains. “The emotion was too important. Now, it’s much easier. The Salafist opposition is in an awkward position.”

Jihadist groups still have sources of funding. But in Kuwait, as on the ground in Syria, the ISIL has lost significant ground.

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