Jihadis bankroll aid efforts in Syria to win followers

Among those with money to throw around in the scrum for influence are groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, which the State Department says has ties to Al Qaeda in Iraq.

Muhammed Muheisen/AP
Earlier this month, people gather by the window of a makeshift post where Free Syrian Army fighters sell bread, in Maaret Misreen, near Idlib, Syria. The town is broke, relying on a slowing trickle of local donations. The rebels, a motley crew of laborers, mechanics and shopowners, have little experience in government.

To keep his small charity afloat in Aleppo where the cost of supplies have doubled and tripled in recent months, Abu Ahmad must cobble together funding from a range of donors that includes everyone from wealthy Syrian expatriates to charities in Europe.

He was cautiously receptive when fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra approached him offering to help with his relief efforts. One of the many groups fighting against the government of President Bashar al-Assad, Jabhat al-Nusra is a hardline Islamist organization that was officially classified as a terrorist organization by the US State Department on Wednesday and that is looked upon by many Syrians with trepidation.

“Before I met them, I thought they were tough and not easy to work with, but after working with them I found that the opposite of that is true,” Mr. Ahmad says, explaining that the group was better organized than some professional charities he’s worked with. “I don’t believe Jabhat al-Nusra will be bad. I think both the domestic and international media has deformed their image.”

Throughout Aleppo, rebel progress now has many residents no longer talking about if President Bashar al-Assad will fall but when. The confidence that a new future is within reach has many groups that will want a stake in post-Assad Syria vying for influence, and humanitarian aid has become one of their favored tools for reaching their soon-to-be constituents. Among those with money are jihadi groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, which the State Department says has ties to Al Qaeda in Iraq.

“Every organization that is providing Syrians with relief has its own agenda,” says Ayub Abu Kaleel, a teacher. “There are conditions when you take aid. It’s like marketing for these organizations. The only honest aid comes from neighbors helping neighbors.”

Mr. Kaleel says Islamist groups have often tried to approach him with offers to help provide for students and his school in exchange for allowing the Islamist group to dictate his curriculum.

Syria’s conflict has claimed more than 40,000 lives and much of the violence has been indiscriminate, proving a serious deterrent for a number of international aid groups unwilling to incur the risk of working inside Syria at the present time.

Though many foreign organizations are offering assistance in some form, Syrians outside refugee camps along the border say the presence of international aid is virtually non-existent.

In this vacuum, a number of groups have risen to provide aid, inspired by interests more Machiavellian than charitable. Extremist groups from both sides of the political spectrum are now using aid to attract supporters, but a number of Syrians say that conservative Islamist groups have been among the most aggressive. Jabhat al-Nusra even includes informational brochures and CDs in some of their aid packages.

“Some people are on the fence politically, but when they get a lot of aid from an extremist group they’ll go with that group,” says Abu Ali, an activist involved in grass roots relief efforts. “Those people with agendas are extremists. It doesn’t matter if they’re from the left or the right, they’re extremists, and when you feed a poor person you own him.”

Despite these concerns, a number of Syrians say that for the time being their differences are only ideological and not at risk of creating dangerous tensions yet. If Jabhat al-Nusra or any group oversteps the bounds in a Syria without the Assad government, locals say their 21-month uprising has left them equipped to deal with the problem.

“This is just a temporary situation. I believe that people who bring down Assad will be able to topple anyone who makes problems in the future,” says Abu Moaen, an attorney involved with grass roots relief efforts in his neighborhood.

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