Kuwait, 'the back office of logistical support' for Syria's rebels

Behind the scenes, Kuwait has played a no-less pivotal role in the 22-month uprising than its neighbours, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Elizabeth Dickinson reports from Kuwait City

Free Syrian Army fighters take last instructions from their commander before they enter a Syrian Army base during heavy fighting in Damascus.
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KUWAIT CITY // Ten days before sitting down for a leisurely evening tea recently on the outskirts of Kuwait City, Jamaan Al Harbash was in Aleppo talking with rebels fighting to oust Syrian President Bashar Al Assad from power.

It was the third trip to the war zones of Syria by the former Kuwaiti MP, who no longer escapes the Syrian regime's notice. Following a journey to the front in October, Syria's state news agency condemned him for "attempts to spread sedition among the united Syrian people".

The regime's censure has not deterred Mr Harbash, who scrolls through his iPhone to show recent pictures of shattered neighbourhoods and a hospital he said was rebuilt with the help of Kuwaiti funds. Amid the scenes of war is a photo of Mr Al Harbash standing with a half dozen fighters of the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA).

"The reason I went to Syria was to observe whether the aid we are sending is reaching the general population," he said.

To many observers, Kuwait's decision to host a United Nations meeting last week to raise humanitarian aid for Syrians - and its pledge of US$300 million to the effort - were the most overt steps that the country has yet taken to get involved in the crisis.

Until then, Kuwait had appeared largely absent from regional diplomacy on the crisis, while Qatar has funded and hosted the political opposition to Mr Al Assad and Saudi Arabia has reportedly sent arms to anti-regime fighters.

Yet interviews with aid organisations and officials suggest Kuwait has played a no less pivotal role than its Gulf Arab neighbours during the 22-month uprising. This country of 2.6 million people has emerged as a central fund-raising hub for direct financial support to insurgents fighting the Assad regime and for humanitarian aid to rebel-controlled areas, which are said to encompass slightly more than half of the country.

The exact amount of lethal and non-lethal aid channeled through Kuwait to Syria since mid-2011 is difficult to determine, but humanitarian assistance alone is believed to run into the tens of millions of dollars.

The level of humanitarian help is expected to increase in the coming months. The day before the official UN conference, dozens of charities met separately and pledged $182 million in assistance for Syria. One organisation, the Kuwaiti-based International Islamic Charitable Organisation raised $2.7 million in just a two-day telethon that coincided with the UN gathering.

Most of the aid collected in Kuwait for Syria is bypassing the United Nations and its myriad aid agencies. The reason is simple: the destination.

At the UN donor conference last week, international officials raised concerns about their ability to deliver humanitarian supplies to rebel-controlled areas. Lacking the connections and trust, their convoys are often turned back.

Not so with many of the Kuwaiti charities and their local partners, who say that they have been able to transport wheat, blankets, heaters and other supplies to rebel-controlled areas by working with local partners and using their longstanding ties to Syria.

"We will not give our money to any country or to the UN," said Bader Burahmah, president of the charity Al Rahma International, through a spokesman authorized to speak on his behalf. "People want to know how and to whom their money is going."

Al Rahma urges aid recipients to take photos of the supplies they get. It also asks for receipts documenting every financial transaction and, as much as possible, send back receipts for every financial transaction along the way.

Civilians are not the only beneficiaries of aid streaming from Kuwait.

For the past year, Hajjaj Al Ajmi, a Kuwaiti cleric, has raised money to "support the mujahedeen" in Syria, announcing his fund-raising efforts on Twitter, complete with addresses and telephone numbers. His endeavours have won him, via a YouTube video, the gratitude of anti-Assad rebels.

Humanitarian aid groups insist they do not allow lethal and non-lethal aid to mix. But the same factors have made Kuwait an ideal location for both kinds of assistance efforts to flourish.

Kuwait has a liberal attitude towards independent organisations and charities, with some 80 non-governmental organisations.

"Kuwait has its own uniqueness in terms of freedoms - to give, to work in helping others," said Dr Sulaiman Shamsadeen, general manager of the International Islamic Charitable Organization, which has an annual budget of $100 million.

Kuwait's social structure has helped, too.

Mr Ajmi's fund-raising, for example, has benefited from tribal and family dynamics in Kuwait, said Noman Benotman, who directs the Quillam Foundation and monitors financing to the Syrian opposition.

Fund-raisers for Syria have become like "public events" in Kuwait, each one focused on a particular tribe's ability to raise money, which in turn sparked friendly competition over which tribe can raise more, explained Mr Benotman, one of thousands of Gulf Arabs who went to fight the Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Kuwait's banking regulations - or more accurately, the looseness of those regulations - have made it an attractive conduit for funneling money to Syria.

Other Gulf countries, in particular, Saudi Arabia, have closely monitored the scope of their citizens' involvement in the Syrian crisis, leading activists and fund-raisers from around the Gulf to take advantage of a banking system that is, in the words of one Western diplomat, "not particularly robust."

"Earlier in the crisis - on a regular, say a weekly basis - other Gulf citizens used to transfer money to certain names in Kuwait, because in their countries it's not possible," said Mr Benotman. "In Saudi Arabia, they made clear that anyone who tries to bypass this official process would face trouble. In Kuwait, it was like a back office in terms of logistic support."

Recently, the balance of aid going to Syria has shifted in favour of humanitarian help, Mr Benotman said.

In the immediate months after the Syrian uprising became militarised in mid-2011, it was easy for Mr Ajmi and other Kuwaitis to fund the rebel fighters directly. But as the conflict has worn on and ties between various rebel factions more thorny, donors have increasingly opted to channel their donations to groups engaged only in humanitarian relief.

Mr Benotman said that the rise of Al Nusra Front, and the decision of the United States in December to classify the faction as a terrorist organisation, encouraged some donors to curb their ties with all rebel groups, partly out of a distaste for the Front's ideology but also for fear of being targeted for prosecution under Kuwait's anti-money laundering statutes.

"Some aid is being conveyed [to the Free Syria Army], but it is too little, given that citizens cannot deal directly with the militant groups over there," agreed Mr Harbash. "That is why they always resort to a body that has an official standing, like the [Syrian] National Council, or other parties that work with it, like the civilian protection authority."

Mr Harbash said that he is only involved in non-lethal aid efforts to the rebel FSA, including training in how to treat prisoners of war according to the tenets of international humanitarian law. But that does not mean weapons are no longer important.

"What is needed is that the FSA be authorised, officially, to acquire weapons of self-defence in a way that would enable it to prevail. The FSA must not be dealt with as a bunch of militant, opposition factions, it must rather be dealt with as an official body.

"In fact, the FSA now is a large structure and if it was being supplied with a specific type of arms - especially anti-aircraft weaponry - that would enable it to finish off this battle in a month or two."


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