Despite the public rhetoric from the White House about its willingness to use diplomacy to resolve the Syrian conflict, the United States is now actively supporting the Syrian opposition in its attempt to overthrow the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Acting in violation of international law and federal law President Barack Obama legalized the “material support” of the armed opposition against the existing authorities in Syria; thus he openly supports the militants, some of which the United States officially classifies as terrorist groups.
According to the current U.S. defence doctrine, radical Muslim militant groups are one of the most serious threats to U.S. interests at home and abroad. The National Security Strategy, published by the White House, said that “the U.S. is waging a global campaign against the al-Qaeda and its related groups. To undermine and eliminate the al-Qaeda and its affiliated groups, we follow a strategy that allows us to protect our homeland, protect the most dangerous materials and weapons in the world, deprive the al-Qaeda of safe haven and build partnerships with Muslim communities around the world.”
And now this has all spun out of the control of Washington. Not only Riyadh and Doha officials, but also individuals from the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf, who are beyond the control of their authorities, are deeply involved in the financing of armed Syrian opposition, what’s more the most radical sections of it.
The flow of U.S. arms, provided to the Syrian rebels, is being generously paid for with new infusions of cash from Islamist extremists, and a large part of these funds come from Arab networks of financial aid contributors, which consider the Syrian conflict as a step toward a broader “Islamist transformation of the Arab world”. Private sources of funding actively involved users of Twitter and other social networks to organize a collection of tens of millions of dollars for the financial support of the rebels from “sympathetic Muslims” from the Persian Gulf. Dollars and other currencies are received through the Internet, wire transfers between private bank accounts and delivered personally by couriers, often in border towns as is particularly the case with the Turkish border town of Gaziantep, which boarders Syria, with a population of 1.4 million people. Moreover, some of the participants in these donations specifically asked to cover the cost of a weapon, to finance another militant operation, or to pay for the training and arming of one jihadist of foreign origin, that is, a mercenary. You can even then receive a video that shows what was carried out for such a payment.
While radical groups, such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar ash-Sham, have long relied on donations from the Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf, the flow of private cash has allowed extremists to hold their position on the battle fields against Syrian government troops, despite some loss of support from key Arab patrons, such as Qatar, which have reduced assistance to the most radical groups under pressure from the United States and Saudi Arabia. And these private contributions have in many respects even undermined Western efforts to strengthen the influence of moderates in the opposition and secular factions of the rebels, who are the main recipients of American weapons.
Obama administration officials are trying to confirm in confidential discussions that they have worked with the allied countries from the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf to block private flows of cash, but have faced great difficulties. Arab organizers of the aid for rebels take advantage of the weak legal regulators in some countries of the Persian Gulf, which allow the fundraisers to create small religious charities to collect money in mosques and other public places. Much of this funding comes from individuals in the Gulf, especially from Kuwait, to finance terrorism in Syria. This principality, formerly a source of financial support for extremist groups in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, continues to be an area that provides a permissive environment for raising funds for terrorist purposes.
Most disturbing, according to White House officials, there is a new trend among the collectors of donations for the rebels – namely, trying to gain influence over the Syrian rebel paramilitary groups they support. Some of them even created their own militia for the rebels and try to dictate everything to them – from ideology to warfare tactics. Moreover, many of them hold fierce anti-American views, calling the actions of Washington “American terrorism”.
As already mentioned, in the Turkish border town of Gaziantep, where there was a flood of tens of thousands of Syrian refugees two years ago, there has recently appeared new type of foreigner, consisting of Arab businessmen, wearing white dishdasha (a long, usually white robe traditionally worn by men in the Middle East), distinctive of the Gulf nations. Some of them arrive with almost whole sacks of money, just looking for whom to give it to from among the numbers of extremist rebels. And finding weapons that they can spend money on is not difficult.
It should be noted that in areas located along the border with Syria in Jordan and Turkey, dozens of small charities with Arab patrons have appeared, and also shops and retail outlets have opened in Jordanian cities, such as Mafraq and Ramtha, where the cash is paid to employ young refugees from Syria and eventually turn them into fighters against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. All this is happening with donations from wealthy sheikhs from the countries of the Persian Gulf. Such illegal transfers unofficially use some Arab banks as well as the Hawala system (a system of individual cash transfers using a network of trusted individuals).
And some of the fundraising centres have even tried to change the course and nature of the internal Syrian conflict, to canalise it in a more radical direction, creating their own militant groups, actively distributing money to expand their influence among the dozens of Islamic rebel organizations. They are trying to preselect the wining groups by observing which groups are growing rapidly in number and operating successfully in military terms.
For the 12-year-old Conference al-Ummah Islamist organization, for example, which was founded in Kuwait and has branch offices in 14 Arab countries, the Syrian conflict has served as a means to raise funds, an ideas laboratory and as an academy for training personnel. Its leaders have established links with the Syrian group of the same name – Liwaa al-Umma, or al-Ummah Brigade, literally throwing money at radical Islamist groups, such as Ahrar ash-Sham. The soldiers of the al-Ummah Brigade coordinate tactics with the more radical groups, such as those associated with the al-Qaeda, Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. This structure’s relationship to the Syrian opposition militants deepened and developed especially in March, when one of its leaders – Muhammad al-Abdouli, a former colonel in the army of the United Arab Emirates and the president of the UAE branch of the Conference al-Ummah – was killed by a sniper, while fighting in Syria. The organization has since established a military training camp in Syria, named in his honour.
In contrast to the Muslim Brotherhood, leaders of the Conference al-Ummah do not show any interest in achieving their goals through a long political struggle. While it externally rejects terrorism as a method of achieving its objectives, at the same time in its charter the organization denies the legitimacy of secular governments in Muslim countries and calls for the “Islamization of the law”. Hakim al-Mutairi, the Kuwaiti founder of the movement, recently praised the former leader of the Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, as a “lion of Islam” and an “international Muslim leader,” “the heroism of which will be duly appreciated one day when all Muslims will be freed from secular rules”.
In addition, the new leader of the Ummah branch in the United Arab Emirates and a veteran of the Syrian conflict Hassan al-Dikki suggested in a Twitter post in June that he considers the Syrian conflict as an important step to ensure that Muslims have challenged U.S. influence in the region. “Muslims will not be able to withstand American terrorism, without adopting a comprehensive strategy where politics and jihad cross,” he wrote.
For current and former American experts in the field of counter-terrorism, such statements seem painfully familiar. “Some of these groups have always held radical views, but before the Arab Spring they did not carry out an active jihad,” said one former American intelligence analyst, who worked in the region for many years. – Now they have got a jihad. And now they are jihad veterans.”
As they say, one reaps what one sows!
Alexander Orlov is a political analyst and an expert Orientalist. Exclusively for the online magazine New Eastern Outlook.