Kuwait's Hidden Hand in Syria

The Saudis and Qataris get most of the attention, but Kuwaiti donors also have eagerly opened their purses to Syria's rebels.

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Private donors in Kuwait are proving to be a lifeline for Syria’s rebels.

It is often assumed that Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been the most adamant about arming Syria’s fractious rebel movement. But there is growing evidence that clerics and opposition politicians in Kuwait have also been stepping up their own efforts in an attempt to collect as much cash for Bashar al-Assad’s opponents as possible. Millions of dollars in Kuwaiti dinars have reportedly been flown from Kuwait to Turkey and Jordan, where the cash is then distributed to the various branches of the Syrian resistance movement.

“There is a great amount of sympathy on the part of the Kuwaiti people to provide any kind of assistance to the Syrian people whether inside or outside Syria,” Kuwaiti foreign minister Sheikh Sabah Khaled al-Sabah told Reuters.

Along with tens of millions of people in the Arab world, the conflict, which has crossed the threshold of one hundred thousand dead, including women and the smallest of children, has torn at the heartstrings of ordinary citizens in the small Gulf Arab sheikhdom. The only difference, it seems, is that the Kuwaiti government is perfectly content with going its own way instead of following the lead of its Saudi and Qatari neighbors. Why rely on other states, they reason, when one can contribute independently and with no strings attached?

That job, it appears, has been undertaken by powerful individuals in Kuwait, including religious figures and former parliamentarians—many of whom hold great sway over some segments of the population, despite the country’s pro-Western leanings. One Salafist group in Kuwait, the Great Kuwait Campaign, has been so successful in raising money for Syrian rebel groups that twelve thousand Syrian rebels could now be fully armed as a result of their pledges. For an opposition movement that has constantly complained about being underfunded and underequipped, the donation campaign from the Kuwaiti group is a rare but welcome development.

Dr. Waleed al-Tabtabai, a former Kuwaiti member of parliament and a man integrally involved in the fundraising, wants to go a step further. Instead of delivering cash, why not deliver what the rebels need the most: heat-seeking antiaircraft missiles? Those shipments, while applauded by the Free Syrian Army, would certainly arise anger and suspicion in Washington and in Europe, where arming the anti-Assad fighters with such advanced weaponry has long been used as a reason to act prudently and cautiously.

In addition to exacerbating the violence in Syria, the Kuwaiti effort to supply the insurgency with more money and arms will no doubt give the United States, Europe and the United Nations another reason to worry. Where would the weapons go? Who would monitor their distribution? And how can there be any certainty that antiaircraft weapons would not be used for purposes other than targeting Bashar al-Assad’s MIGs and helicopters?

Unlike assistance that has been provided by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, much of which is now closely coordinated with the United States, Great Britain, France, Turkey and Jordan, the money being sent from private donors in Kuwait is outside official channels set up by the Friends of Syria group. Kuwaiti clerics and MPs who hold some connection with Islamist movements are doing much of the door knocking and fundraising. By virtue of these Islamist leanings, it may be safe to assume that most of the funds are being delivered to the types of Syrian factions that the international community is most worried about. Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and Al Qaeda in Iraq are three of the most powerful, but three of the most extreme.

If President Barack Obama found it difficult to intervene on behalf of Syrian rebel forces a few months ago, news that the private donors in Kuwait are raising money and trying to pump advanced weapons into the conflict—perhaps with the quiet consent of the Kuwaiti government—will increase that tension to a new level.

As the Syrian conflict continues to grind on and as the United States gets more involved militarily, those who want to push Bashar al-Assad out need to answer a tricky question: how do you defeat Assad’s regime without empowering the very people that are the most likely take Syria’s politics, economy and society backward? Given the world’s reactive policy towards the war, it doesn’t look like the United States or its allies have been able to find an easy answer.

Daniel R. DePetris is a researcher at Wikistrat and an independent analyst. The views expressed in this article are his alone.

Image: Flickr/AnxiousNut. CC BY-SA 2.0.