The Syrian revolution’s Kuwaiti supporters

Through the lens of a new Orientalism with which many on the Left now view the Middle East, the war in Syria is an old fashioned proxy war in which the forces of Western imperialism, using their local autocratic allies are engaged in the latest phase of a struggle against the “axis of resistance” which unites Hezbollah, the Assad regime, and Iran.

Even if there is an element of truth in that perspective, it contains a fundamental distortion in the degree to which it discounts the roles of individuals. Syrian civilians along with Syrian and non-Syrian fighters, are all viewed as pawns whose fates will be determined in the real centers of power: Washington, Jerusalem, Paris, London, Riyadh, Qatar, Ankara, Amman, Beirut, Tehran, and Moscow.

In a report on Kuwaiti private support for the opposition, Elizabeth Dickinson provides a much more granular view of who has been funding the war, why this support arose and is now waning. Her account shows why the view of Syria at the center of a geopolitical chessboard is so limited.

Jamaan Herbash used to smile when he talked about Syria. When I met the former Kuwaiti parliamentarian, a year ago, just outside Kuwait City, he scrolled through snapshots of Syria on his iPhone as if they were vacation pictures. One showed him with Free Syrian Army fighters in Aleppo, another was of an F.S.A. hospital that he had helped to fund. He told me that he was even conducting human-rights training for moderate rebel brigades. He was evidently proud of his work, and his face softened as he talked about his most recent visit to Syria. He said that other countries should be doing more to help the rebels, like supplying anti-aircraft weapons to the F.S.A. In the meantime, he explained, private donors were trying to make up the difference: “People pay for their own travel and make sure they convey their donations hand to hand, so the money is disbursed in a very clean manner, untainted by any corruption.”

When I saw Herbash again, nine months later, in October, he looked weary. His beard, scraggly and untrimmed, in the style of strict Islamists, framed exasperated eyes, and his feet fidgeted as we talked about the deteriorating state of the rebellion against Bashar al-Assad. “It’s clear that there is a war of exhaustion in Syria now,” he said, reversing his earlier prediction that the rebels were only months away from victory. More extreme fighters had taken control, and the rebels were so disorganized that many of them were primarily fighting among themselves. Herbash was still raising money—a poster outside his home urged people to contribute: “THEIR CHILDREN ARE BEING KILLED WHILE OUR CHILDREN ARE ENJOYING THE BOUNTIES OF LIFE”—but his optimism had faded.

On Wednesday, Kuwait hosted an international donors’ conference, chaired by Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. Secretary-General, which aimed to raise some of the $6.5 billion that the U.N. estimates will be needed for humanitarian relief in Syria in 2014. The Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah al-Sabah, made the largest pledge, five hundred million dollars; the United States added three hundred and eighty million. In all, the conference generated $2.4 billion, well short of its goal. But, even before the event began, Herbash was convinced that it would make little difference. Last year, the Kuwaiti government’s donation was channelled through the U.N., which under international law must work with the Syrian government—the al-Assad regime—to coördinate relief efforts. That aid hadn’t helped the refugees, not even a little, Herbash wrote on Twitter on Wednesday morning. So, he asked, why not give the money to private Kuwaiti charities to disperse?

Since the Syrian revolution began, in 2011, private Kuwaiti donors like Herbash have been among its most generous patrons, providing what likely amounts to hundreds of millions of dollars to the armed opponents of Assad. The majority of Kuwaitis—like most of the rebels—are Sunni; the Syrian regime and its Army are predominantly Alawites, a small Shiite sect that counts Assad among its members. With its open political atmosphere and its weak terror-financing laws, Kuwait also serves as a hub for private donors across the Gulf.

At the beginning of 2013, Herbash still thought that the moderate rebels of the F.S.A. could win the war. At that point, the Syrian conflict had produced fewer than five hundred thousand refugees, and, he believed, the opposition controlled seventy per cent of Syrian land. Today, there are at least 2.4 million Syrian refugees, with another 6.5 million Syrians displaced inside the country itself. The regime has reclaimed territory, and bitter fighting has erupted between mainstream-opposition fighters and the Al Qaeda affiliate called the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), whose reputation for ruthlessness has shocked even the strictest of the Islamist rebels. Earlier this month, ISIS ceded territory that had come under assault from other rebel groups—including Jabhat al-Nusra, another brigade linked to Al Qaeda—but regained some of it in fierce fighting in the past week, which has claimed over a thousand lives.

As the war took a more sectarian and extremist turn, so, too, did its private funders. As the grandmothers, wives, brothers, and even children in Kuwait who had donated to the rebels watched as the conflict turned fratricidal, they wondered what they had given their money to. But the funding didn’t stop—instead, it simply flowed in more extreme directions. Moderates like Herbash have essentially been eclipsed by donors who have fewer qualms about the tactics of the most violent jihadist groups. When I spoke to Herbash in October, he lamented the emergence of hundreds of new rebel brigades, each one accountable only to its own funders. [Continue reading…]

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