The Middle East Channel

Gulf charities and Syrian sectarianism

Syria's civil war did not start out as a sectarian conflict pitting Sunnis against a Shiite-backed regime. Sectarian language was largely absent from the early nonviolent protests and its leaders deliberately tried to create a multiethnic, multi-confessional front. But as the conflict turned violent, extremists on both sides recast the conflict as a sectarian apocalypse to discourage Syrians from creating the broad, cross-cutting coalition of Syrians necessary to take down the regime.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's sectarian strategy -- targeting Sunni civilians, labeling the opposition "al Qaeda," portraying himself as the protector of Syria's religious minorities -- is well known. Less well known is the sectarian strategy pursued by Sunni extremists, particularly the ultraconservative Salafis living in the Persian Gulf, who are sending "hundreds of millions" of dollars to ensure the worst factions of the revolt are ascendant -- mostly under the guise of humanitarian relief. 

Pundits in the West are quick to blame the Gulf countries for fueling the sectarian conflict but the governments of Kuwait, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar have shied away from backing the Salafi militias in Syria -- the most sectarian factions in the conflict. Instead, they have either focused on humanitarian relief or backed their own non-Salafi proxies like the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood or more secular factions like those linked to Saad Hariri in Lebanon.

Nevertheless, the Gulf monarchies have not been able or willing to stem the tide of private money their citizens are sending to the Salafi charities and popular committees. Kuwait in particular has done little to stop it because it lacks an effective terror financing law and because it cannot afford politically to infuriate its already angry Salafi members of parliament. Qatar and Saudi Arabia have tried to crackdown on fundraising for the Salafi militias but their citizens just send their money to Kuwait.

One of the primary recipients of private donations from the Gulf is the Popular Commission to Support the Syrian people, associated with the wealthy Ajmi family. In a tweet from August, for example, the commission bragged it had received 130,000 riyals ($34,663) in alms (zakat) from a woman in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The organization has funneled millions of dollars in funds and humanitarian aid to Salafi militias like Ahrar al-Sham, which is one of the most sectarian groups fighting in the Syrian conflict. Last year, Ahrar publicly thanked the commission for sending $400,000. Salafi militias like Ahrar use the money to buy weapons and the humanitarian aid to build popular support.

Not every Islamic-oriented charity is behaving so irresponsibly in Syria. The president of Islamic Relief USA, Abed Ayoub, recently told a Brookings panel on foreign aid and sectarianism in Syria that his organization does not discriminate on the basis of "any political agenda, ideology, or even religion." Rather, Islamic Relief claims to have provided aid to over half a million people in Syria, including Christians, and has partnered with a number of other Christian humanitarian organizations like Catholic Relief Services. 

Another participant on the panel, Mouaz Mustafa, the executive director of the Syrian emergency Task Force, echoed Ayoub, arguing that aid agencies should combat sectarianism in Syria by focusing on supporting the many non-sectarian civil society institutions and governing bodies that have sprung up in Syria's major cities. According to the U.S. State Department's Maria Stephan, the same reasoning underpins the department's aid to the local councils, civil society organizations, and professional groups and unions.

The State Department and responsible religiously-oriented aid organizations have an uphill battle in Syria but it is worth the fight. Failing to do so leaves governance to the militants, especially those who have the best financing like the Salafi groups. Indeed, Salafi militias have set up Islamic courts in captured territory where they dispense their conservative brand of justice as well as public goods. Entrenching themselves in this manner will ensure the country's sectarian divide endures long after the end of hostilities.

There is also a risk for Gulf countries that allow organizations like the Popular Commission to fan sectarian hatred abroad because those same organizations also advance a sectarian agenda at home. For Sunni-led countries like Bahrain and Kuwait that have large Shiite populations seeking greater political rights, domestic anti-Shiite activism threatens to spark a conflict that would quickly rage out of control. Tightening restrictions on sectarian charities sending money abroad to Salafi militias will not only help calm the fires of sectarianism blazing in Syria but also ensure they do not spread to the Gulf.  

William McCants is a fellow at the Brookings Saban Center, where he directs the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World.

JM LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

A new wave of car bombings hits Baghdad

A wave of car bombings across the Iraqi capital of Baghdad during the Monday morning rush hour has killed an estimated 54 people and injured dozens more. An estimated 14 seemingly coordinated bombings hit markets and parking lots targeting mainly Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad. The most severe attack hit a vegetable market near a gathering point for day laborers in the eastern district of Sadr City. The car bombing killed seven people, including two soldiers, and wounded 75 others. Monday's attacks came after a suicide bomber killed at least 40 people Sunday at a Shiite funeral at a mosque in the town of Mussayab, about 40 miles south of Baghdad. Also on Sunday, a double suicide car bombing targeted the security forces headquarters and interior ministry in Erbil, the capital of Iraq's Kurdish region, killing at least 11 people. While there has been a dramatic recent surge of violence across Iraq, Sunday's attack in Erbil was the first to hit the autonomous Kurdish region since a truck bombing in 2007 targeted the same security complex.


The U.N. Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution on Syria Friday night, launching an international effort at containing and destroying Syria's chemical weapons arsenal. The resolution includes two legally binding demands, namely that the Syrian government relinquish its chemical weapons stockpile and that international chemical weapons inspectors be given unrestricted access. The Security Council vote came after the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) agreed on a plan to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons by the middle of 2014. The OPCW said it will begin inspecting sites in Syria by Tuesday. Additionally, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced a tentative date in mid-November for a long-delayed peace conference in Geneva. However, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said Syrian government officials would not participate in talks with the main opposition Syrian National Coalition because it supported a proposed U.S. military strike on Syria. Meanwhile, Syria's neighboring countries have requested international assistance for dealing with the soaring refugee crisis. Representatives from Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq met with the UN refugee agency Monday in Geneva seeking financial support and searching for other countries to host some of the most vulnerable refugees.


  • A Bahrain court has sentenced 50 Shiite Muslim activists for up to 15 years in prison accusing them of involvement in the February 14 Coalition that worked to overthrow the government.
  • In efforts to end Tunisia's political crisis, the Islamist-led government has agreed to resign after negotiations expected to begin next week, which will be mediated by the UGTT labor union.
  • Suspected al Qaeda gunmen dressed as security officers reportedly seized an army base Monday in the port city of al-Mukalla killing an estimated three Yemeni soldiers and possibly capturing an army commander.

Arguments & Analysis

'The American-Iraqi Encounter' (Marc Lynch, Foreign Policy)

"The absence of Iraqi voices from American discussions about Iraq over the last decade has long been a major shortcoming. The bookshelf of English-language books about the decade of war with Iraq overflows with accounts of Washington inter-agency battles, General David Petraeus, American soldiers in the field, General David Petraeus, and General David Petraeus. Some are excellent, some less excellent. But very few of them seriously incorporate the experiences, views, or memories of Iraqis themselves -- a problem of American-centric analysis which I termed 'strategic narcissism.'

And so, on Thursday, October 3, I'm proud to be hosting a really fascinating and hopefully important conference at the Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University called 'The Encounter.' Each panel at the full-day event will include both Iraqi students who lived in Iraq during some of the years of the war and American students who served those same years in the U.S. military in Iraq (including several Tillman Military Scholars). The keynote lunch session will feature a discussion about American policy and the Iraqi experience between me, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East Colin Kahl and the Iraqi historian Abbas Kadhim. The agenda is open-ended, and the discussions about how Americans and Iraqis viewed one another should be extremely frank and direct."

'The Shadow Commander' (Dexter Filkins, The New Yorker)

"Suleimani took command of the Quds Force fifteen years ago, and in that time he has sought to reshape the Middle East in Iran's favor, working as a power broker and as a military force: assassinating rivals, arming allies, and, for most of a decade, directing a network of militant groups that killed hundreds of Americans in Iraq. The U.S. Department of the Treasury has sanctioned Suleimani for his role in supporting the Assad regime, and for abetting terrorism. And yet he has remained mostly invisible to the outside world, even as he runs agents and directs operations. 'Suleimani is the single most powerful operative in the Middle East today,' John Maguire, a former C.I.A. officer in Iraq, told me, ‘and no one's ever heard of him.'

When Suleimani appears in public -- often to speak at veterans' events or to meet with Khamenei -- he carries himself inconspicuously and rarely raises his voice, exhibiting a trait that Arabs call khilib, or understated charisma. 'He is so short, but he has this presence,' a former senior Iraqi official told me. 'There will be ten people in a room, and when Suleimani walks in he doesn't come and sit with you. He sits over there on the other side of room, by himself, in a very quiet way. Doesn't speak, doesn't comment, just sits and listens. And so of course everyone is thinking only about him.' "

'Imagining a Remapped Middle East' (Robin Wright, International Herald Tribune)

"The map of the modern Middle East, a political and economic pivot in the international order, is in tatters. Syria's ruinous war is the turning point. But the centrifugal forces of rival beliefs, tribes and ethnicities -- empowered by unintended consequences of the Arab Spring -- are also pulling apart a region defined by European colonial powers a century ago and defended by Arab autocrats ever since.

A different map would be a strategic game changer for just about everybody, potentially reconfiguring alliances, security challenges, trade and energy flows for much of the world, too.

Syria's prime location and muscle make it the strategic center of the Middle East. But it is a complex country, rich in religious and ethnic variety, and therefore fragile. After independence, Syria reeled from more than a half-dozen coups between 1949 and 1970, when the Assad dynasty seized full control. Now, after 30 months of bloodletting, diversity has turned deadly, killing both people and country. Syria has crumbled into three identifiable regions, each with its own flag and security forces. A different future is taking shape: a narrow statelet along a corridor from the south through Damascus, Homs and Hama to the northern Mediterranean coast controlled by the Assads' minority Alawite sect. In the north, a small Kurdistan, largely autonomous since mid-2012. The biggest chunk is the Sunni-dominated heartland.

Syria's unraveling would set precedents for the region, beginning next door. Until now, Iraq resisted falling apart because of foreign pressure, regional fear of going it alone and oil wealth that bought loyalty, at least on paper. But Syria is now sucking Iraq into its maelstrom."

--Mary Casey & Joshua Haber