Away from spotlight of Syria aid conference, a murkier fund drive

Kuwait pledged $500 million to aid efforts today. But it is also a major hub for funneling money to anti-Assad fighters, including brutal foreign extremists.

Gustavo Ferrari/AP
Delegates attend the opening session of the second International Humanitarian Pledging Conference for Syria pose for a group portrait at Bayan Palace, Kuwait City, on Wednesday, Jan 15, 2014. Kuwait pledged $500 million to alleviate the suffering of Syrians affected by the country's civil war at the start of the fundraising conference that international aid officials hope will generate billions of dollars needed this year.

As global leaders gathered at the glitzy Bayan Palace in Kuwait City today to pledge support for the estimated 11.6 million Syrian victims of the civil war, a much quieter fundraising effort continues behind the scenes: private funding for Syrian rebels, with some of the donations reaching the hands of extremist groups.

Campaigns to garner financial support for Syria’s opposition have been taking place in Kuwait for more than two years, attracting donors at home and across the Gulf whose money is bundled and remitted to rebels through unofficial channels.

A Brookings report published last month said that independent contributions have declined since peaking in 2012. However, analysts warn that as the crisis in Syria drags on, the cash that continues to materialize is increasingly earmarked for more extreme rebel factions.

“The funders that you have remaining really do have a clear ideological agenda for the conflict,” says Elizabeth Dickinson, author of the report, “and it’s a danger not only for the direction that Syria will take, but frankly for the future of the entire region.” (Editor's note: Elizabeth Dickinson is a former Monitor contributor.)

In total, it is estimated that hundreds of millions of dollars have been funneled through Kuwait into Syria, and evidence suggests some has gone to support rival al-Qaeda affiliates Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). Both groups have used brutal tactics in fighting not only the Syrian regime forces, but also more moderate Syrian rebel groups and civilians that do not follow the groups' strict interpretation of Islam. 

“[Private Kuwaiti funding] plays a part in keeping these groups active,” says Michael Stevens, a researcher at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies in London. “It has enabled the rise of what you might say are some of the more extreme elements of the Syrian opposition in recent times.”

“If the situation isn’t abated,” Stevens continues, “what you will see is simply the ability of both ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra to keep on fighting and to keep the pressure up against both the regime and moderate opposition groups.”

But Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum, says the importance of private financing from Gulf citizens to current extremist operations in Syria may be overestimated.

“Even if you did stop all the private support I’m not sure it would make all that much difference to the Islamic State of Iraq and [the Levant] because they just get so much from the extortion networks in Mosul [a city in northern Iraq]. They also control some oil and gas resources in eastern Syria,” he says. 

Generous Kuwaiti aid

The Kuwaiti government has also downplayed the private donations flowing across its borders.

“I think too much is being made of this issue,” says Sheikh Mohammed al-Abdullah al-Sabah, the Kuwaiti Minister of State for Cabinet Affairs. “I am not saying it is insignificant, but in relation to all of the goodwill that Kuwait is providing it really is being blown out of proportion.”

Indeed, the oil-rich Gulf state has been one of the largest contributors of aid to victims of the Syrian conflict. Today it pledged the largest donation among participating nations: $500 million. In total, $2.4 billion was pledged by international donors – a sizable amount, but far less than the $6.5 billion the United Nations has requested for 2014. About 70 percent of the UN's 2013 request for $4.4 billion was funded. 

According to an independent study carried out by the aid organization Oxfam that calculates each country's "fair share" of humanitarian support – based on its gross national income and overall wealth – Kuwait has given 1,444 percent of its fair share. Still, it comes in far behind Jordan at 12,720 percent and Lebanon at 5,617 percent. The US has given 88 percent of its fair share. 

“Ever since the outbreak of the tragedy in Syria, Kuwait has participated in all efforts aimed at reaching a political solution for the war there, and has repeatedly declared its readiness to exert further efforts for the achievement of this goal. It also realized that the way to deal with this tragedy is to follow the humanitarian path,” Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah said Wednesday. 

Closing loopholes

While downplaying the significance of the private fundraising for Syria, Kuwait has taken measures to tighten its lax financial regulations. Analysts say these loopholes make Kuwait a convenient route for backdoor funds into Syria – and into the hands of the most extremist anti-Assad groups on the battlefield. 

“We are working very hard to curtail any loopholes there are in any laws or regulations,” Mr. al-Sabah says. 

But Dickinson, the author of the Brookings report, says the worst damage from the untracked private donations may have already been done.

“Now you have a group of people with experience funding these sorts of operations and the longer that Syria drags on, the stronger that network is going to become,” she says. “I think that is one of the greatest dangers of what’s going on right now, it’s that you simply create a new generation of extremist funding networks."

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