A screengrab from YouTube showing Syrian rebel group Ajmi battalion thanking… (N/A/CREDIT: YOUTUBE )
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Syrian tanks were closing in on the rebel-held town of Qusair last month when a Kuwaiti sheik named Hajjaj al-Ajmi and his money machine roared into action. In a series of urgent messages on his Twitter account, Ajmi appealed for cash to help save the town’s defenders.
“I hope that we can be a means for helping them and relieving them,” the young cleric wrote to his 250,000 Twitter followers on May 25. He gave a phone number for making donations and asked readers to “kindly spread it.”
The appeal came too late for the rebels in Qusair, but the technique has proved remarkably successful for Ajmi and a handful of other private backers of Syria’s patchwork of rebel groups. In just over a year, Ajmi’s foundation has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to finance Syrian rebel groups.
U.S. and Middle Eastern officials describe the money as a small portion of a vast pool of private wealth being funneled to Syria’s warring factions, mostly without strings or oversight and outside the control of governments.
The private funding of individual militias — some with extremist views — further complicates the task facing the Obama administration as it ventures into arming Syria’s rebels. With its decision to increase support for the Syrian opposition, Washington is seeking to influence a patchwork of militia groups with wildly different abilities and views about how Syria should be run after the war.
The reluctance of Western governments to intervene over the past two years has allowed private donors to play an outsize role in shaping the Syrian conflict, officials say. From Persian Gulf cities hundreds of miles from the battlefield, wealthy patrons help decide which of Syria’s hundreds of rebel groups will receive money to pay salaries and buy weapons and supplies for the fight against the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
In practice, these donors overwhelmingly back Islamist groups whose ultraconservative views reflect their own, intelligence officials and analysts say.
“Direct money from the gulf is super-empowering some of the jihadi groups,” said William McCants, a former adviser to the State Department and an expert on radical Islam. “With the United States holding back, there is a vacuum. And within this vacuum, private money is giving the jihadists more pull.”
So fierce is the competition for private funds that some Syrian groups adopt the language and dress of Islamists — growing beards, for example — to improve their chances with potential patrons, analysts say. Others post videos on YouTube thanking their gulf sponsors for past assistance and pleading for more.
A few have even named themselves after a gulf benefactor, like sports teams that adopt the logo of a corporate sponsor. One rebel group in eastern Syria now calls itself the “Hajjaj al-Ajmi Brigade,” in a tribute to the Kuwaiti sheik. A YouTube video posted by the group opens with a banner emblazoned with the sheik’s name and then shows a dozen masked fighters wearing camouflage fatigues and brandishing assault rifles.
“It’s anyone’s game,” said a U.S.-based Middle Eastern diplomat whose country has provided aid to some of the rebel factions opposed to Assad.
“Non-state actors are now involved in a big way. You see different players looking to create their own militias,” said the diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss politically sensitive aid to the Syrian opposition. “It is beyond control.”
It is difficult to obtain reliable estimates of the amount of non-official aid given to Syrian groups. The donors are private citizens, and the deliveries typically take the form of cash-stuffed suitcases handed off to rebel emissaries at the Turkish border. Government experts and private analysts say the figure is certainly well into the millions of dollars. It is roughly the same pattern of private giving that funded the mujahideen fighters in Afghanistan and, years later, the militant Islamist movement that came to be known as al-Qaeda, analysts say.
Virtually all of the money from gulf states flows to anti-Assad forces that share a similar Sunni Arab background. Similar cash flows have bolstered pro-Assad forces in Syria, analysts say, including donations from Shiites in Iraq, Iran and Lebanon, mirroring the larger regional schism between the two major branches of Islam. Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group based in Lebanon, has provided fighters and training for Syrian government forces.
Clues about the impact of private giving can be gained from the YouTube and Facebook postings of several Syrian groups that acknowledged gifts with online thank-you notes. Last year, the Syrian Revolutionary Front, an Islamist organization with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, acknowledged receiving nearly $600,000 from the Popular Commission to Support the Syrian People, a fund managed by Ajmi and another Kuwaiti sheik, Irshid al-Hajri.