Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Problem With the Rebels' Financial Distribution Model

The system distributing funds to Syrian rebel groups fosters divisions, sustains extremism, and creates organizational incoherence among rebel groups.

Ideally, the system would work as follows: A diverse set of funders including states, expatriates, and religious/community leaders would secure funds and transfer them to a central rebel coordinating body operating at the national level. This body would then divide the funds between coordinating bodies in each province in charge of organizing rebel activity. Provincial coordinating bodies would distribute the funds among the rebel groups actively fighting the regime based on size, importance of their area of operations, and demonstrated capabilities. This process would force fringe groups to move toward the center in order to acquire funds, or risk becoming operationally irrelevant as better resourced groups take the lead. A top down distribution system would also promote unity, organizational coherence, and responsible behavior among the rebels. Unfortunately, this is not how the system works.

The actual distribution system is more complicated and works as follows: A diverse set of funders ranging from states to expatriates and religious/community leaders secure funds and transfer them to a variety of rebel organizations. This includes bodies that attempt to coordinate or influence rebel activity across provinces, including the Free Syrian Army, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the more islamist Syrian Rebels Front. Primary funders will also transfer weapons and funds directly to revolutionary-military councils coordinating rebel activity at the provincial level, as well as to individual brigades operating at the village level. By providing funds to both coordinating bodies and their component rebel groups, funders are undermining the effectiveness of the coordinating bodies, making it difficult to impose order on rebel groups that have independent sources of funds (sometimes the same source that the revolutionary-military council relies upon). The current system also allows fringe groups to secure funds and stay independent of moderate leadership structures.

This distribution system grew organically out of the need to fund rebel groups operating without the support of a major power. It is natural that funders would want to sponsor actors at every level of the distribution network, giving them broad influence and ensuring that their money reaches the most influential players while targeting rebel groups deemed amenable to the funder's political goals. This effort, however, is undermining the unity, coherence, and moderation of the Syrian rebels.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Kuwaiti Supply Network

A recent article by Rania Abouzeid brought important parts of the rebel supply network into the light. The following blog post aims to build on Rania’s impressive reporting by outlining the Kuwaiti supply network referenced in her report.

Rebel groups across Syria receive funds and weapons from the Haia al-Shaabiya l-Daam al-Shaab al-Suri (which loosely translates to The Popular Commission to Support the Syrian People). The organization is run by two young Kuwaiti sheikhs, Sheikh Hajaj al-Ajmi, and Sheikh Irshid al-Hajri.

The sheikhs do not appear to receive direct support from the Kuwaiti government as Sheikh al-Ajmi has said that he does most of his fundraising through Twitter where he has over 110,000 followers. The Haia has also released a video in which prominent Kuwaiti artists, sheikhs, and athletes make emotional appeals for contributions.

According to al-Ajmi, he began sending arms to the Ahrar al-Sham Battalions as well as Free Syrian Army units via Turkey in 2011 (this early activity is unconfirmed). During the summer of 2012, the Haia’s activities became more public, possibly coinciding with an increase in the amount of assistance being sent to Syria.

On June 30, the Umma Brigade, led by Libyan revolutionary Mahdi al-Harati posted a thank you to the Haia and the people of Kuwait for their “material support.” On August 1, Ibrahim Ayoub, leader of the Hamza Battalion and member of the Rastan Military Council released a Youtube video thanking the Haia for its support in the form of $10,000. The Thuwar al-Shaidat Battalion, based in Deir Ezzor released a video on August 20 thanking the Haia for its backing, and another Deir Ezzor group was so grateful for the Haia’s sponsorship that they named themselves in honor of Sheikh Hajaj al-Ajmi.

Funders of the Syrian rebels are often accused of distributing funds based on ideological preference. Interestingly, the Kuwaiti Haia does not appear to be doing this as its beneficiaries lie across the ideological spectrum. Ahrar al-Sham is considered a mostly salafist group, while the Umma Battalion is a moderate Islamist group, and Ibrahim Ayoub is on the secular end of the spectrum. The amount each of these groups receives is unknown, however, and it is possible that the distribution of funds is weighted toward Ahrar al-Sham.

Sheikh Irshid al-Hajri (Left) and Sheikh Hajaj al-Ajmi (center) meet with Riad al-Assad, head of the FSA during a trip to Turkey in late June.

The sheikhs with Mahdi al-Harati, head of the Umma Brigade

The Ahrar al-Sham Battalions send the sheikhs a thank you tweet

The Long Arm of Shuhada Suriya

In late July, Jamal Maaruf, leader of the Shuhada Jebel al-Zawiyah Battalion formed the Shuhada Suriyah Battalions, presaging a growth in capabilities and aggressiveness. Before mid-July, Shuhada Jebel al-Zawiyah’s area of operations was restricted to Jebel al-Zawiyah and the M5 highway seven kilometers to the east, it has since expanded 29 kilometers further east to the border of Aleppo province and north to Saraqeb.

The expansion began late July when the group moved south of Jebel al-Zawiyah to capture regime positions in Maarat al-Numan and Kafr Nabl in quick succession. Shuhada Suriyah then participated in the battle for Ariha in late August. A few days later, they traveled 45 kilometers from their base in Deir Sunbil to carry out a raid on the Abu Dhuhur air base. There were many impressive aspects of this operation, including the seizure of a section of the air base as well as the downing two MiGs, but their ability to sustain the fight for two weeks far from their base of operations was unprecedented.

After pulling back from Abu Dhuhur, Shuhada Suriyah did not simply rest and regroup. Instead, it attacked regime positions in the town of Saraqeb, strategically located where the M4 and M5 highways meet, and maintained the fight for three days.

Over the past two months, Shuhada Suriyah’s pace of operations, extended area of operations, and strategic choice of targets has been impressive, making it a key player in northern Syria. The funding that Shuhada Suriyah is reportedly receiving from Gulf states probably accounts for part of this rapid expansion in capabilities.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Middle Men Getting Rich Off the Syrian Civil War

There are massive amounts of cash flowing from the Gulf states to Syrian rebel groups. Some of this money never reaches its destination, however, as unsavory middle men siphon off funds meant for the rebels. In other cases, con men are selling themselves as representatives of groups to which they have no connection. Rebel groups are aware of the problem and are trying to dampen its impact by publicizing their official fund raising channels on social media outlets.

The Furqan Brigade, a member of the Ansar al-Islam group in Damascus, posted a warning on their facebook page to their “donor brothers in the Gulf states.” Furqan cautioned that that “there are people collecting donations in the name of the Furqan Brigade that have nothing to do with us.” The post then directed prospective donors to the phone number of the Furqan Brigade’s financial committee.

It is inevitable that this would occur as the flow of money from the Gulf to Syria is entirely unregulated, allowing money handlers, both official and spurious, to get very rich very quick.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Syrian Rebel Groups Expand into National Networks

A new phenomenon is emerging in Syria in which powerful rebel groups that were formally associated with a single city are developing national networks. Rebel networks including the Ahrar al-Sham Battalions and the Free Syrian Army have existed on a national level since the early stages of the Syrian civil war, but the expansion of networks that once revolved around a distinct region into nationwide organizations reflects the increasing complexity of Syrian rebel groups, the growing influence of several charismatic leaders, and the power of money.

The Ariha based Suqour al-Sham Brigade was one of the first to expand out of their province when they incorporated the Shuhada Halab L’Muham al-Khasa Battalion in Aleppo city during the spring. Abdul Razzaq Tlass’ Farouq Battalion, a dominant player in Homs, now claims the Farouq al-Shamal Battalion based around the Bab Hawa border crossing, as well as a group in Damascus that played a role in the bombing of a Syrian army general staff building on September 2. The Damascus-based Ahfad al-Rasul Brigade, which also took part in the September 2 bombing, recently announced the formation of a battalion in Idlib province named Suqour Jebel al-Zawiyah, giving the brigade a presence in the north.

Given their distinct areas of operation, it is unlikely that there is an operational relationship between the leaders of the brigades and their new far-flung battalions, but the satellite groups probably receive financial benefits from their well-endowed patrons. A recent video by the videographer Mani depicted Farouq Battalion commanders receiving a shipment of $100,000 in cash, while Ahmed Abu Issa, the leader of Suqour al-Sham, candidly told reporters in August that “people want to join us because we have enough weapons.”

Suqour al-Sham and the Farouq Battalions are both high-profile groups with charismatic leaders, allowing them to pull fighters, funders, and journalists into their orbits. It is also likely that Abu Issa and Tlass have political ambitions for the post-Assad era. The expansion of their networks beyond their immediate region gives them control of geographically widespread networks of supporters, allowing them to be national political leaders after the war.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Rebel Downing of Regime Aircraft and What it Means

I received a request for a list of the dates and locations for all instances of rebels shooting down regime aircraft. It was posited that perhaps an examination of the list would indicate a new capability among the rebels that could obviate the need for foreign support.

I can only confirm seven instances in which the rebels have shot down regime aircraft (if anyone has other examples, please share).

The List:

Rebels first shot down a helicopter around June 26 in Maardebseh, Idlib. The Suqour al-Sham Brigade and the Shuhada Jebel al-Zawiyah Battalion deployed mounted heavy machine guns during the battle and both claimed responsibility.

On July 7, members of the Jafar al-Tayyar Battalion in Deir Ezzor shot down a surveillance aircraft.

On August 13, rebels in the town of Mohasan, Deir Ezzor shot down a MiG jet with an anti-aircraft machine gun.

On August 27, rebels in Damascus shot down a helicopter in the vicinity of the Jobar neighborhood.

In late August, the Shuhada Jebel al-Zawiyah Battalion sustained a week long attack on the Abu Dhuhur airport. They shot down two MiGs during the course of the battle, one on August 31 and one on September 4.

On September 5, the Saif al-Islam Battalion of the al-Islam Brigade shot down a helicopter over Damascus


Regime aircraft have been shot down across a wide geographic area. This indicates that a foreign supporter is not providing unique arms to a specific rebel network. Additionally, the rebels used anti-aircraft machine guns in all instances in which the weapon used to shoot down an aircraft could be identified.

The rebels are mostly likely acquiring these weapons during raids on regime positions. As the rebels captured small regime positions during the spring, they seized weapons caches which were then used to attack larger regime positions during the summer, from which they seized larger amounts of weapons. This snowball effect accounts for a part of the rebel’s growing strength.

Another factor in the recent increase in aircraft being shot down has been the regime’s growing use of aircraft. The regime only began using helicopters in earnest in May and fixed-wing aircraft in July, providing the rebels their first opportunities to shoot down aircraft. The two MiGs that were shot down in late-August and early-September occurred at the Abu Dhuhur airport where rebels had penetrated the perimeter of the airport, making it much easier to shoot down aircraft taking off and landing.

Although the rebels are able to shoot down aircraft, it does not happen very often. This explains the rebel’s newest tactic of attacking air bases. The rebels have not been able to protect their villages, cities, or armored vehicles by shooting regime aircraft out of the sky. The rebels have therefore begun destroying aircraft on the ground by assaulting or capturing air bases in Abu Kamal, Taftanaz, Abu Dhuhur, and Mengh. The rebels do not have a sufficiently strong anti-aircraft capability, but their growing ability to seize large regime bases may obviate their need for advanced anti-aircraft weapons.

Unconfirmed reports of rebels downing aircraft: 

June 23, the Salman al-Farisi Battalion claimed that they had shot down a helicopter in al-Bab, Aleppo

On July 17, The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights stated that “several witnesses report that a military helicopter was downed in the Qaboun neighborhood of Damascus”

On July 20, The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights stated that there were “reports that a helicopter has been shot down in the (Harasta, Damascus) area.”

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Idlib Revolutionary Council’s Dispute with the Muslim Brotherhood

The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood’s tendency to fund rebel groups based on ideological affinity has caused resentment among rebel groups that do not benefit from the Brotherhood’s largesse. In Idlib province, the Idlib Revolutionary Council and its military wing, the Shuhada Idlib Brigade, have assumed a lead role in the quarrel with the Brotherhood.

The dispute began in early July when Ahmed Sid Yusuf, a member of both the Syrian National Council and the Muslim Brotherhood, held a meeting in Istanbul to discuss the distribution of funds in Idlib province. According to the Shuhada Idlib account of the meeting, opposition activist Tarif Saeed Issa gave a financial report, stating that €642,000 had been distributed from the beginning of March through early June. The Shuhada Idlib envoys grew upset upon learning that €311,000 had been distributed to the Tawhid Brigade and other units in the Idlib countryside while their group had only received €9,000. During the ensuing argument, the Shuhada Idlib Brigade representatives left the meeting (or were thrown out).

In mid-July, the Shuhada Idlib Brigade and the Idlib Revolutionary Council organized their own meeting in Antioch, Turkey which included representatives from associated rebel groups and political activists. The statement released following the meeting called on rebel financiers to recognize that 2/3 of rebel groups in Idlib province were represented at their meeting, and therefore 2/3 of the external funds going into the province should be distributed through the Idlib Revolutionary Council network, and identified Abu Mohamed Battal from the council’s External Executive Office as the point of contact for potential funders. (The 2/3 figure given by the statement cannot be verified and important Idlib province rebel groups did not attend the meeting).

On August 28, the Shuhada Idlib Brigade and the Idlib Revolutionary Council held a follow-up meeting in the Rihaniyya refugee camp near the Turkish city of Antakya. The statement released after the meeting demonstrated that the problems identified at the first meeting have not been resolved. They again called on the Muslim Brotherhood and the national council to distribute funds according to the relative size of the group, not ideological affinity.

There are two takeaways from this. First, the Muslim Brotherhood has not changed its funding policies, alienating many powerful rebel and opposition groups. Second, the fact that important groups such as the Idlib Revolutionary Council are still calling on the Brotherhood to change its distribution policy implies that the Brotherhood remains an important source of overall funds for the Syrian rebels.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Refugee Camps in Northern Syria Still Impossible

Turkey is pressuring the international community to establish refugee camps inside Syria as refugee flows increase to tens of thousands per week. The regime’s military presence on the northern border, however, makes this plan unworkable for the time-being, as there is no political will to place troops or aid workers inside Syria near regime positions. Until the rebels consolidate unquestioned control of the northern border, any suggestion that camps be established inside Syria will continue to be a nonstarter.

The rebels of northern Idlib province are fighting to push the regime’s remaining forces out of the border region. The major rebel groups in the area, including The Shuhada Idlib Brigade and The Deraa Hunano Brigade, are laying siege to a regime held town two kilometers from the Turkish border named Haram. The first day of fighting did not go well for the rebels. A contingent of fighters from the Uthman Dhu Nurain Battalion of the Shuhada Idlib Brigade got pinned down by heavy machine gun fire near the Haram citadel. Trapped, the battalion issued a request for covering fire to facilitate their withdrawal which was posted on the Facebook pages of the Local Coordination Committees in the surrounding towns. When help arrived, the Uthman Dhu Nurain unit withdrew on foot through a series of valleys, but later criticized fighters who thought the request for assistance was specious.

As of late today, there are reports that an armored convoy is on Route 56 headed toward Haram from the direction of Salqin. The Local Coordination Committees in the area have issued calls for fighters on Route 56 to attack the convoy, whose aim is to either reinforce the regime position inside Haram, or pull the garrison out. In any case, calls for the establishment of refugee camps inside Syria are premature until the rebels consolidate control of all the villages along Turkey’s border. The effort to do so is ongoing, but by no means easy.