- By William McCantsWilliam McCants, the founder and co-editor of Jihadica, is a research analyst at CNA's Center for Strategic Studies and an adjunct faculty member at Johns Hopkins University. He most recently served as senior advisor on countering violent extremism in the U.S. State Department's Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism.
Syria’s civil war did not start out as a sectarian conflict pitting Sunnis against a Shiite-backed regime. Sectarian language was largely absent from the early nonviolent protests and its leaders deliberately tried to create a multiethnic, multi-confessional front. But as the conflict turned violent, extremists on both sides recast the conflict as a sectarian apocalypse to discourage Syrians from creating the broad, cross-cutting coalition of Syrians necessary to take down the regime.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s sectarian strategy — targeting Sunni civilians, labeling the opposition "al Qaeda," portraying himself as the protector of Syria’s religious minorities — is well known. Less well known is the sectarian strategy pursued by Sunni extremists, particularly the ultraconservative Salafis living in the Persian Gulf, who are sending "hundreds of millions" of dollars to ensure the worst factions of the revolt are ascendant — mostly under the guise of humanitarian relief.
Pundits in the West are quick to blame the Gulf countries for fueling the sectarian conflict but the governments of Kuwait, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar have shied away from backing the Salafi militias in Syria — the most sectarian factions in the conflict. Instead, they have either focused on humanitarian relief or backed their own non-Salafi proxies like the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood or more secular factions like those linked to Saad Hariri in Lebanon.
Nevertheless, the Gulf monarchies have not been able or willing to stem the tide of private money their citizens are sending to the Salafi charities and popular committees. Kuwait in particular has done little to stop it because it lacks an effective terror financing law and because it cannot afford politically to infuriate its already angry Salafi members of parliament. Qatar and Saudi Arabia have tried to crackdown on fundraising for the Salafi militias but their citizens just send their money to Kuwait.
One of the primary recipients of private donations from the Gulf is the Popular Commission to Support the Syrian people, associated with the wealthy Ajmi family. In a tweet from August, for example, the commission bragged it had received 130,000 riyals ($34,663) in alms (zakat) from a woman in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The organization has funneled millions of dollars in funds and humanitarian aid to Salafi militias like Ahrar al-Sham, which is one of the most sectarian groups fighting in the Syrian conflict. Last year, Ahrar publicly thanked the commission for sending $400,000. Salafi militias like Ahrar use the money to buy weapons and the humanitarian aid to build popular support.
Not every Islamic-oriented charity is behaving so irresponsibly in Syria. The president of Islamic Relief USA, Abed Ayoub, recently told a Brookings panel on foreign aid and sectarianism in Syria that his organization does not discriminate on the basis of "any political agenda, ideology, or even religion." Rather, Islamic Relief claims to have provided aid to over half a million people in Syria, including Christians, and has partnered with a number of other Christian humanitarian organizations like Catholic Relief Services.
Another participant on the panel, Mouaz Mustafa, the executive director of the Syrian emergency Task Force, echoed Ayoub, arguing that aid agencies should combat sectarianism in Syria by focusing on supporting the many non-sectarian civil society institutions and governing bodies that have sprung up in Syria’s major cities. According to the U.S. State Department’s Maria Stephan, the same reasoning underpins the department’s aid to the local councils, civil society organizations, and professional groups and unions.
The State Department and responsible religiously-oriented aid organizations have an uphill battle in Syria but it is worth the fight. Failing to do so leaves governance to the militants, especially those who have the best financing like the Salafi groups. Indeed, Salafi militias have set up Islamic courts in captured territory where they dispense their conservative brand of justice as well as public goods. Entrenching themselves in this manner will ensure the country’s sectarian divide endures long after the end of hostilities.
There is also a risk for Gulf countries that allow organizations like the Popular Commission to fan sectarian hatred abroad because those same organizations also advance a sectarian agenda at home. For Sunni-led countries like Bahrain and Kuwait that have large Shiite populations seeking greater political rights, domestic anti-Shiite activism threatens to spark a conflict that would quickly rage out of control. Tightening restrictions on sectarian charities sending money abroad to Salafi militias will not only help calm the fires of sectarianism blazing in Syria but also ensure they do not spread to the Gulf.
William McCants is a fellow at the Brookings Saban Center, where he directs the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World.