The Middle East Channel

Shaping the Syrian Conflict from Kuwait

One night during Ramadan this summer, Hamad al-Matar, a former Kuwaiti member of parliament (MP), invited guests over to donate "to prepare 12,000 Jihadists for the sake of Allah," a poster invitation advised. Anyone could come to his diwaniya, a space used for weekly gatherings to talk politics and sip sweet hot tea. And many did come, their pockets open and their contributions generous.

"I think we raised 100,000 KD [$350,000]," he later recalled in the same diwaniya, a long room lined on the perimeter with ornate couches. "That amazed me. I was thinking I would collect a couple thousand KD. Never in my entire life did I get such an amount of money in my pocket in one day."

But what happened to that sum of money next, Matar said, he isn't certain. "I'm not involved actually honestly speaking in where this money goes, because there are so many people much better than myself. Even I didn't know the map [of Syria]," he explained. "Honestly I don't know actually" where the money went.

For the last two years, MPs like Matar, as well as Kuwaiti charities, tribes, and citizens have raised money -- possibly hundreds of millions of dollars -- for armed groups fighting the Syrian regime. In many ways, the financing is highly organized. Smartly aligned to a given theme, battle, or season, campaigns are broadcast on social media and advertised with signage and elegant prose.

But Matar's account offers a glimpse of just how uncontrollable -- even random -- this support has become. In Kuwait, private financing came into political vogue in Sunni circles, bringing aboard legions of public figures seeking to associate themselves with support for the Syrian rebels.

That broad base of popular support among Sunnis has rendered the phenomenon nearly unstoppable for the Kuwaiti government. There is another complication too: some in the Shiite community have held events and possibly raised funds in support of the embattled Assad regime.

Donors on both sides of the political spectrum could prove perilous for Kuwait, home to a tiny population of just 3 million. Sectarian tensions have risen in recent months as events in the region have escalated. The war in Syria now threatens to invigorate a generation of extremists on both poles who may not take as kindly to the country's mixed-sectarian make-up.

In the early days of the uprising, just a few individuals and charities were involved in shaping and funding rebel opposition groups. But as the level of violence rose, donations grew, and the funders were keen to see that their money had been well spent; YouTube and Twitter exploded with videos announcing the creation of new brigades, some even named after their donors in the Gulf.

Suddenly, everyone in Kuwait knew which diwaniyas and charities had funded a brigade. And that visibility attracted a new cohort of donors. Kuwait's large Sunni tribes held massive fundraisers, in one case reportedly raising $14 million in just five days. They became competitions: Could the Ajman tribe outbid the Shammar? Social pressure increased the take -- and made participation a necessity for many of Kuwait's most prominent politicians.

MPs like Matar joined the fold, sometimes wrapping Syria's story into Kuwait's own political predicament. Since 2009, a coalition of Islamist, tribal, and youth groups have banded together to demand government and social reforms, among them an end to perceived government favoritism toward the mostly-Shiite merchant class. Now, Syria's struggle seemed to fit into a narrative of Shiite repression of the Sunni common man. President Bashar al-Assad, an Allawite, was backed by Shiite Iran, while the Gulf states professed support to the mostly-Sunni rebels.

On Twitter, there was a rush to boast donations and solicit more. Fundraisers posted photos of cars and jewelry that had been sold to support the "mujahideen." They also earmarked specific costs for weapons: For example by saying that an $800 donation will buy a directed missile or a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG). For Matar's diwaniya fundraiser, a contribution of 700 KD ($2,500) was said to be sufficient to prepare one fighter for battle. Some donors went into Syria, even participating in the fighting -- or so they claimed on Twitter.

"In terms of weapons, those people are announcing, very clearly in the media, in the social media, that, ‘we are gathering,'" said Mohammed al-Dallal, a former MP for the Muslim Brotherhood in Kuwait's political wing, the Islamic Constitutional Movement. (He said he personally only supports humanitarian work.) "Go to twitter, social media, you find their pictures."

The private donors have not escaped the government's attention -- but officials say the situation has been exaggerated. "These donations, if they do occur, are honestly insignificant," argued Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah al-Mubarak al-Sabah, minister of state for cabinet affairs. "Yes of course it makes a good story in the press when $10 ends up in the wrong person's hands. But unfortunately those $10 are only $10 of a million dollars. I'm just trying to give you the scope, I'm not signifying $10 got there, it's just an example."

Over the summer, Kuwait began implementing a new law that for the first time criminalizes terrorist financing. Banks will be required to note down the personal details of all their clients as well as anyone making an international transfer of more than 3,000 KD ($10,500). To help track and investigate misdeeds, the Central Bank will build a new Financial Intelligence Unit with the help of experts at the IMF. The work to enforce these new regulations has just begun, with little evidence they have so far affected the existing donor networks to Syria's opposition.

Still, those in Kuwait who would like to see the government do more allege that there are also domestic political obstacles to stopping private financing to Syria. Many of the constituencies most active in fundraising have also been the most vocal opposition to the government. Dozens of Islamist and Salafist MPs boycotted the last two elections, but their ability to draw people to the streets is still a looming reality in Kuwaiti politics.

"The government cannot do anything because if they move against such activities, the Islamist parties will start shouting loudly against the government," Bashar AlSayegh, the editor of Kuwait's Al Jareeda newspaper, explained. "Here in Kuwait, it is very easy to claim that the government is working with the Iranian regime against the Syrian people."

Donors like Matar also argue they are simply doing the bidding of Kuwait and fellow Gulf states, which have publicly backed the Syrian opposition. What could be wrong with doing the same privately? "When I was a member of the foreign policy committee with our National Assembly, we went to see Crown Prince Salman [bin Abdulaziz al-Saud] in Saudi Arabia. He said very clearly, ‘We are supporting Syria and we should support Syria,'" Matar said. "The same message, we heard from Qatar ... and Bahrain."

Yet while the government has followed the region in recognizing the Syrian opposition, its population is far from unified on the matter. And there is an equally vocal segment of Kuwaiti society that has supported the Syrian president.

In a gathering in 2012, former MP and Shiite businessman Abdul Hameed Dashti spoke in front of a large poster with Kuwait's emir pictured embracing Assad. "Kuwait, land of prosperity, your emir is the lord of the free," a man in the crowd began to chant, draped in a Syrian crowd. "Syria will not be shaken. Its protector is Bashar." A video of the event mentions 23 million Kuwaiti dinars ($81 million) for the regime, but it is not clear if these funds were raised, where they would come from, and how they would be directed.

"I have good relations with the President [Assad] and his family, and all Syrians," Dashti said in June in an interview. From his downtown office, surrounded by photos of Assad, he attacked the rebels' supporters: "There are people who have a new culture as a killer the last few years, they are openly collecting money and supporting the Free Syria Army and Jabhat al-Nusra, and al Qaeda."

Seeking a middle ground on the Syrian conflict, Kuwait's government has carved out a niche in humanitarian relief -- something upon which most everyone can agree. It hosted the first international donor conference for Syria in January and plans to do so again in early 2014. Kuwait itself has donated more than $300 million this year, and local humanitarian groups raised a further $183 million.

Behind the scenes, other fundraising continues. "People they choose: Some [donors] say, ‘I want this money to go to the people who are fighting,'" said Sulaiman Shamsaldeen, a former head of the humanitarian group, the International Islamic Charitable Organization in Kuwait.

"And they have the full right."

Elizabeth Dickinson is Gulf correspondent for The National, and former FP assistant managing editor. This article is the first of a series produced in cooperation with the Brookings Institution's Project on U.S.-Islamic World Relations for the report -- "Playing with Fire: Why Private Gulf Financing for Syria's Extremist Rebels Risks Igniting Sectarian Conflict at Home." 

YASSER AL-ZAYYAT/AFP/GettyImages

The Middle East Channel

Senior Hezbollah Commander Killed in Beirut

Gunmen killed senior Hezbollah commander Hassane Laqees outside his home in the southern Hadath district of Beirut overnight. According to Lebanese security officials, gunmen shot Laqees while he was in his car, in the parking lot under the building where he lived. However, a source close to Hezbollah said the killing was part of a professional operation, and that Laqees was shot in the head with a silenced gun. Little is known about Laqees, but he is believed to have been close to Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and was a weapons manufacturing expert. Additionally, the source said he had participated in fighting in neighboring Syria. A statement from Hezbollah said Laqees had dedicated his life "to the honorable resistance from its first days to his final hours" and additionally mentioned his son had been killed in the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel. Hezbollah has blamed Israel for Laqees's death, however Israel has denied any involvement. In a message on Twitter, a previously unknown group, Ahrar al-Sunna Baalbek brigade, claimed responsibility for the attack, though this has not been verified. The assault has come a day after Nasrallah accused Saudi Arabia of involvement in the November attack on the Iranian Embassy in Beirut.

Syria

The United Nations has expressed concern over the worsening humanitarian crisis in Syria. Valerie Amos, U.N. under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, said that while some progress had been made in gaining access to people in need of assistance, the Syrian government and opposition fighters are still impeding food and medicine deliveries to millions of civilians by blocking convoys from Turkey. Amos noted that within the past month, nine aid convoys had entered Syria. While this is three times as many as had gained access in prior months, she claimed, "this is still far too few to meet the needs of the millions of people." According to the U.N. children's fund (UNICEF), "The scale of the humanitarian response needed for the looming winter is unprecedented." Meanwhile, a Danish cargo vessel is set to load and transfer Syria's chemical weapons stockpile to the U.S. Navy ship Cape Ray. Two field deployable hydrolysis systems are currently being installed on the Cape Ray in Norfolk, Virginia, and it should be ready to sail by January 4. The Danish ship carrying the chemical arsenal should depart from the Syrian port of Latakia by the end of the year. In efforts to undercut a growing al Qaeda presence in Syria, the United States and its allies have held talks with key Islamist militias from the Islamic Front, acknowledging their battlefield gains. Additionally, despite U.S. concerns, Saudi Arabia has moved to provide weapons to the Islamist faction, the Army of Islam.

Headlines

  • French investigators have concluded that Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat most likely died of natural causes, contradicting findings from a Swiss study that "moderately" supported he was killed by radiation poisoning.
  • Egyptian interim President Mansour is expected to quickly approve the draft constitution and Prime Minister Beblawi urged citizens to vote in a referendum on the document to be held "within 30 days."

Arguments and Analysis

'Protest Is Egypt's Last Resort' (Sahar Aziz and Shahira Abouelleil, International New York Times)

"As Egypt braces for its second attempt at passing a constitution via a public referendum, the timing of the protest law was no coincidence: It was designed to quell anticipated dissent by civil society and youth groups who have been largely excluded from the constitution-drafting process, as they were in 2012.

While the law's proponents point to similar legislation in Western democracies regulating the time, manner and place of public protests, they overlook the alternative channels available in those societies for expressing dissent. A free press and the ability to criticize government policies without risk of arrest under trumped-up charges are crucial government oversight mechanisms.

No such alternatives exist in Egypt. Under Article 204 of the Egyptian Constitution, recently upheld by the constitutional drafting committee and set to be voted on as part of the public referendum, civilians can be tried in military courts under certain conditions. In a country in which military-owned businesses comprise up to an estimated 40 percent of the Egyptian economy, this effectively could cause the military justice system to displace the civilian justice system. Civilians involved in a dispute with a military officer or an employee of a military-owned gas station, for example, could be tried in a military court."

'Hamas Loses Ground' (Victor Kotsev, Sada)

"Within one year, the fortunes of the two main Palestinian movements, Fatah and Hamas, have seemingly reversed. Undercut by the ouster of its Muslim Brotherhood ally in Egypt and cut off from much of the world, Hamas is facing a number of threats, both external and internal. As the economic conditions worsen in Gaza and discontent rises on the streets, the militant movement is growing paranoid and finding Gaza increasingly difficult to govern.

A year ago, the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank was in the same situation as Hamas is now. At this point last year, when Israel was withholding tax money and Arab and Western donors were scaling back their support -- distracted by the world financial crisis and the Arab Spring and unhappy about PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas's refusal to restart peace talks with Israel -- the backlog of unpaid salaries of civil employees increased, and discontent on the streets skyrocketed. Analysts were warning of 'a total breakdown in law and order in the West Bank.' Hamas's popularity, by contrast, was on the rise, propelled by events in Egypt and Syria (though the movement had lost the important support of the Syrian regime a few months earlier, at the time the Muslim Brotherhood, closely linked to Hamas, was gaining ground in the civil war and was courted by much of the international community) and basking in the attention of Arab rulers such as the Emir of Qatar, who visited the strip and pledged hundreds of millions of dollars of financial support.

But with the restart of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and the ouster of Mohammed Morsi in Egypt, all that changed. Though many Palestinians still distrust Abbas, he is once again regarded as the legitimate face of Palestinian leadership -- he is receiving important foreign delegations -- and economic tensions in the West Bank have decreased. In the meantime, Hamas's coffers are empty, most of the tunnels under the Egyptian border it has used as a lifeline have been destroyed, and its few remaining international friends (such as Turkey) are on the defensive. Furthermore, a homegrown popular movement is organizing to challenge Gaza's rulers while Fatah is also reportedly waiting for an opportunity to pounce on them."

--Mary Casey & Joshua Haber

RAMZI HAIDAR/AFP/Getty Images