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Syria's Moderate Rebels Fight A Battle On Two Fronts

A Syrian fighter from the Islamist rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra inspects a resident's identification papers at a checkpoint in Aleppo on Oct. 26. Syria's Islamist fighters are generally better funded than their more moderate counterparts.
Reuters /Landov
A Syrian fighter from the Islamist rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra inspects a resident's identification papers at a checkpoint in Aleppo on Oct. 26. Syria's Islamist fighters are generally better funded than their more moderate counterparts.

Like many Syrian exiles, Murhaf Jouejati, a professor at National Defense University, is frustrated by U.S. policy toward Syria. He says there's been only a trickle of U.S. aid to the secular, nationalist opposition in Syria, while the Islamists have no trouble raising money through their networks in the Arab world.

"They are very well-funded, they are well-equipped, they are highly trained, they are highly disciplined and highly motivated, and as a result, although their numbers are still small in comparison to the larger Free Syrian Army, they are the ones that are proving to be the most effective," Jouejati says. "This is not good news for Syria, for the regional neighborhood or for the world."

Funding For Islamist Rebels

The Treasury Department says it's closely tracking the flow of money to al-Qaida-linked groups in Syria. Much of it comes from private sources, so it is hard to stop, says Aaron Zelin of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

"The money is not coming from governments in the Gulf, it's coming from private citizens, and in particular, places like Kuwait," Zelin says.

Kuwait, Zelin says, has lax terrorism financing laws and many Salafis, who are ultraconservative Islamists, in parliament.

"The Salafis have been able to gain a lot of power within the country over the last 10 years or so, and have been using their own charities to provide money and weapons to these different [Syrian] groups," he adds. The funders sometimes create shell organizations in southern Turkey that are used to deliver money to the rebels in Turkey or Syria.

The U.S. estimates that these fundraising networks have collected hundreds of millions of dollars in donations that end up in the hands of al-Qaida affiliates like the Jabhat al-Nusra or Nusra Front, which is on a U.S. terrorism blacklist, or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which is waging war in both Syria and Iraq.

Social Media Impact

Former State Department official William McCants, who is now with the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution, says these groups carry out their fundraising campaigns through social media.

"So if there's a big battle going on, they will have a hashtag that includes the name of the battle and then they will make a specific plea for assistance to go to the mujahids [holy warriors] who are fighting in Syria or they will make a more general pitch for aid, humanitarian aid," McCants says.

Once the money is gathered, it's wired to individuals, often in Turkey.

"Those individuals will usually show up in a border town, pull out the money in cash and bring it across the border in suitcases and hand it over in cash to the groups," he says.

And there is a real impact on the ground, McCants says. While the U.S. wants the opposition to get more organized and united under the umbrella of the Supreme Military Council, the aid to that group has been slow to materialize while money flowing to extremists groups is driving rebel factions apart.

"You read continually of groups that are aligned with the Supreme Military Council of running out of ammunition and not being able to pay their men," McCants says. "So the private money going to these militias, the ultraconservative militias, are drawing in a lot of the young men just by virtue of having more cash on hand."

Support For Syria's Government

It's not just the jihadis who are able to raise funds easily in this conflict, says Fred Hof of the Atlantic Council.

"The [Assad] regime on the other side is being supplied lavishly by both Russia and Iran," Hof says. "It's the people in the middle who are not getting what they need."

The more moderate opposition fighters have had to hire a sanctions lawyer in Washington just to try to cut through U.S. regulations to try to get money and supplies to the groups the Obama administration says it supports.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michele Kelemen
Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.