The Middle East Channel

Syria’s Gulf Brigades

In the months after protests first erupted in Syria in 2011, a soft-eyed native of Deir al-Zour province did two things -- one he is proud of and another he deeply regrets. As an expatriate living in Kuwait, he was energized by the thought of change back home; he spent his money, devoted his time, and rearranged his life around sending food, medicine, and supplies into suffering Syrian communities.

"We were not heroes [before], but placed in such unusual circumstances, we are somehow heroes," he said, recalling how he gathered bags of rice, pleaded with his friends for help, and negotiated with stingy drivers to lower the cost of driving the goods from Kuwait through Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and into Syria.

But not long after the charity work began, he and fellow expats joined up with Kuwaiti donors, and a decision was made to help mold military brigades from the opposition. He shook his head and lowered his voice remembering. 

"The mistake was to create the armed groups," he said, almost in a whisper. "We cannot fight a professional army."

More than two years later, what was once a peaceful uprising in Syria is today a complicated civil war with not just two players but hundreds of armed groups and militias.

Central to that evolution was tiny Kuwait, where thousands of miles away, individuals and religious charities have raised money -- possibly hundreds of millions of dollars -- for Syria's armed groups. Kuwaiti patrons helped create, shape, and support among the most extreme brigades fighting President Bashar al-Assad, including the Salafist Ahrar al-Sham and possibly al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, which often collaborates with the former.

The effect in Syria has been devastating; the Kuwait-based expat felt like he has watched things fall apart in slow motion. A cacophony of private donors each built their own rebel brigade. Dependent on independent funding from abroad, the militias grew separately. Gulf states piled in, adding their donations to one faction or another. As he put it simply: "The different money contributed to divide the armed groups."

Like the Syrian revolution itself, Kuwaiti involvement began out of hope. By the summer of 2011, three Arab regimes had been whisked out of office, and many expected Syria to be the same. Expats living in the Gulf heard stories of young men arrested, boys taken off the streets, protesters shot and wounded. They made lists of families in need and started to remit what charity they could. As the toll grew, businessmen who knew one another -- often coming from the same part of Syria -- connected and pooled their efforts.

They worked silently at first, for fear that Kuwaiti or Syrian authorities would target them or their beneficiaries. After living for years under dictatorship, even expats abroad mistrusted their colleagues' allegiances. Would this man tell the Syrian Embassy what we're doing -- sending bread to the families of those in jail?

"Up until now, people fear each other -- that they will go tell the embassy," another expatriate explained. "For a long time, the Syrian regime made us feel this way. It made our minds very bad."

By the fall of 2011, however, things in Syria had gotten worse. Putting aside their concerns, finally exposing their names, some in the expatriate community began to approach Kuwaiti charities and individuals who had reputations for fundraising. With their long donor lists and deep pockets, these new Kuwaiti benefactors could provide much stronger financial support.

But the new Kuwaiti donors also had ideas about what they wanted to see on the ground -- an armed resistance to Assad.

One such charity was a Salafi group known as Turath, or the Revival of the Islamic Heritage Society (RIHS). Under sanction from the U.S. Department of Treasury, it has allegedly funded al Qaeda affiliates from Albania to Azerbaijan, and Pakistan to Cambodia.

"There was an implicit desire from [RIHS]" to create armed groups, the soft-eyed Syrian explained. "They wanted to shorten [the Syrian revolution] by creating defenders groups; they wanted to do more than just to feed them, they needed armed groups to guard from the regime."

Suddenly in meetings, the donations gathered were no longer divided between food, medicine, and cash. Now, it was partitioned between charity and military support. By early 2012, the fundraising took on a life of its own, broadcast on social media, touted in the mosque. Some donors began traveling to Syria personally. The buzzwords were no longer "food," "shelter," and "medicine," but arms, weapons, and support for the new Syrian mujahideen.

"Brigades and Jihadists are in dire need for aerial protection and anti-tank missiles," donor Hajjaj al-Ajmi tells his supporters in a video from Syria. These weapons "are in scarcity, more than they need qualitative weaponry which is assumed to having entered the country." Victory, he assures, will come from God.

As the brigades took shape, each armed group designated a Syrian representative in Kuwait to make the pitch for support. Like businessmen selling their emerging enterprise, they sat with Kuwaiti sheikhs for tea, arguing over who had more martyrs and fought harder battles with the regime. Many of these new armed groups then took on the ideological identity of their Kuwaiti backers, whether just to win financial support or out of true belief -- a way to ascribe meaning to the atrocities they were witnessing.

In a matter of months, this unpredictable flow of financial support from a slew of individual fundraisers had helped split the Syrian opposition -- as even some donors themselves began to see.

"This huge number of supporters has resulted in a serious problem: It made every brigade think that it doesn't need the other brigades," said Jamaan Herbash, a former member of the Kuwaiti parliament (MP) who has also raised money for Free Syria Army-linked brigades. "For example, Liwa al-Tawhid doesn't need Ahrar al-Sham, just as Ahrar al-Sham doesn't need al-Nusra."

Nor did the rebels win quickly, as the donors had hoped. By 2013, their base of support in Kuwait began to shrink and become more extreme. Increasingly, the donors framed the conflict as an existential one between an Iran-supported Shiite regime and them, the Sunni world.

"Doesn't the perseverance of the people of Syria make you feel obliged to do jihad against criminals?" one donor, a Salafi cleric named Shafi al-Ajmi, asked on Twitter last month. "Even if this goes on, join hands and regard the dealings of Iran and Hezbollah of the devil."

Like that first group of Syrians, Ajmi had a goal for the revolution -- but a very different one. He has backed Ahrar Al Sham. He has engaged in poisonous sectarian rhetoric against minorities and some of his funding went to a rebel assault in the northern port city of Latakia that left hundreds of Shiite civilians dead.

"Be sure that the victory is close," he assured his supporters on Twitter in October. "The number of battles has increased in every province, and in every battle, there are at least six brigades, which hasn't happened in the past. Their number will be increasing soon."

Today, the same fear that permeated their initial work has returned for expats like the heartbroken Syrian man in Kuwait City. It's not a fear of Kuwaiti authorities; it's not a fear of the regime in Damascus. It's a fear that extremist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra will prevail in controlling the opposition. It's a fear that the first victims of this second tyranny will be them, the moderates, who only wanted to help. Like children of the revolution, they will be eaten first.

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." 

ALICE Martins/AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Gunmen Kill American Teacher in Libyan City of Benghazi

Unknown gunmen shot and killed an American teacher on Thursday while he was jogging in Libya's eastern city of Benghazi. Ronnie Smith, a 33-year-old reportedly from Texas, was a chemistry teacher at the city's English-language international school. No one has declared responsibility for the attack, however Benghazi has seen an increase in violence from militia groups in the city since the 2011 overthrow of Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi. Smith was one of few foreign citizens living in Benghazi since many international governments issued travel warnings after the September 2012 attack on the U.S. Consulate that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. Smith was highly regarded at the international school, however he was actively critical on social media of Ansar al-Sharia and other Islamist militias. This week, Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan demanded that all Benghazi militias disarm by the middle of December, though it is unclear if the government's security forces have the capacity to enforce the order.


Syrian opposition activists have accused government forces of using poison gas in an attack on Thursday. According to activists, two shells filled with gas hit rebel territory in the town of Nabak in the mountainous Qalamoun region. They reported seven people killed and said victims were discovered foaming at the mouth and with swollen limbs. The Syrian Revolution Coordinators Union also claimed regime forces used poison gas in the attack, reporting nine casualties. In part of efforts to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons arsenal, the United States plans to conduct a test this month of the hydrolysis equipment, currently being installed on the U.S. Navy Ship Cape Ray, that will be used to neutralize the toxic chemicals. According to a U.S. defense official, "This is a proven technology." However, it is the first time the system will be used to destroy chemical materials at sea. Meanwhile, European security officials have expressed concern over the increasing flow of Europeans into Syria to fight alongside rebel groups with ties to al Qaeda. Belgian Interior Minister Joelle Milquet said between 1,500 and 2,000 Europeans have traveled to fight in Syria. The estimate is more than double of that provided by U.S. intelligence officials in November. 


  • Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula said it was behind an attack Thursday on Yemen's Defense Ministry, which killed 52 people, saying the compound housed a control room for U.S. drones.
  • U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Israeli and Palestinian leaders Thursday, presenting U.S. ideas for West Bank security arrangements to be instituted alongside a peace agreement.
  • A Swiss scientist has challenged findings from a French investigation into the death of Yasir Arafat that concluded the Palestinian leader had not been poisoned.
  • Egypt's Salafist al-Nour party has said it will back the country's new draft constitution although activists are challenging the document saying it robs them of their freedoms.
  • Iran is stepping up a campaign to win western oil investors as hopes grow over a possible lifting of sanctions.

Arguments and Analysis

'Egypt's Draft Constitution Rewards the Military and Judiciary' (Nathan Brown and Michele Dunne, Carnegie Endowment)

"Egyptian voters might well be asked to approve the new constitution without knowing much about when their new president and parliament will be elected or what sort of system will govern the parliament. They may not know whether the defense minister who ousted Morsi will run for president or whether a malleable civilian will be put forward for the job. They may not even know whether the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party will be dissolved and therefore banned from running for seats in parliament.

All these are salient points, because the vote in January will be more a popular referendum on the July 2013 coup than one on the draft constitution itself, which few are likely to read.

Meanwhile, the new constitution and military-backed transitional government face increasing dissent from secular groups that supported the coup or were on the fence. Notable among them are the April 6 Youth Movement and the Strong Egypt Party, who have announced that they plan to mobilize for a no-vote on the referendum due to the constitution's provisions on the military. Brotherhood supporters also continue to oppose the document and the interim government, while protests escalate on university campuses.

The current government's next challenge is how to procure a voter turnout for the January referendum that surpasses the 18 million that Morsi drew a year ago, and an approval rate that exceeds the two-thirds that Morsi got, in order to prove that most Egyptians are still with the military's plan. State media and officials are gearing up for a campaign not only to get out the vote, but to get out a yes-vote. Whether authorities allow groups to campaign freely for a no-vote or boycott of the referendum will be another indication of how much political space remains open in post-coup Egypt."

'Prawer Plan: How the natives became invaders in their own homes' (Noam Sheizaf, +972 Magazine

"Today, the government makes a big deal out of the fact that some of the unrecognized Bedouin villages did not exist two decades ago -- so-called proof of what is presented as a Bedouin attempt to take over the Negev, or what General Almog calls 'a contagious territory from Hebron to Gaza.' However, one must wonder what other options a population kept outside the law is left with.

The desire to finally settle the issue could have been a blessing, were it part of an honest attempt to honor the rights of a native population. But the government's plan seems to be more about the classic 'maximum land, minimum Arabs' formula than about the Bedouin population itself -- especially since at least in some cases, Jewish settlements are planned to be built on the sites of evacuated Bedouin homes.

Since last week's protests, Israeli officials and columnists have been complaining that the Arab leadership and left-wing activists are trying to turn Prawer into 'a Palestinian issue' and internationalize what is essentially an internal Israeli dispute. The Bedouin are indeed Israeli citizens, but as history has taught us, the only way to defend the rights of an ethnic-native minority is through the mobilization of the international community (and even then, chances of success are slim). Even democracies tend to recognize the rights of natives only after dispossessing them of most of their assets and territories. Only then are books written about their tragic histories and museums built in their honor. The Bedouin are still here. They don't need a museum, they need their rights."

--Mary Casey & Joshua Haber