Fractured Syrian rebels scramble for cash as private sponsors dwindle

May 2, 2013

When the Syrian uprising was in its early stages in 2011, one businessman decided to do what he could to help. Banding together with other wealthy individuals from his town, some of them based overseas, he helped a group of local fighters buy light weapons “to continue the revolution.”

After burning through tens of thousands of dollars of his own money, he was eventually forced to give up sponsoring the group toward the end of last year. His own finances were being exhausted, while the needs of his recipients had grown. “When we began, there were 50, 60 people. Now there are 5,000 fighters,” he said. “What can we do?”

Financing from networks of well-off individuals like him, once the lifeblood of the Syrian rebellion, is starting to dry up as the conflict escalates, increasing the rebels’ dependence on state-sponsored support networks. Driven into an increasingly frantic search for support, some smaller groups have formed alliances and affiliations — often short-lived — with those with more secure funding.

When the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad took on an armed dimension in the second half of 2011, it was a highly localized affair involving small units defending their communities with light weapons. The fact that each aspiring commander could turn to networks of expatriate businessmen for funding helped create a rebellion divided into little fiefdoms.

“The way the rebellion started contained the ingredients for fragmentation, and financing was a key factor,” said Emile Hokayem of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

But by late last year, the rebels’ needs had changed. They had progressed from smaller operations that required light weapons to launching offensive assaults on helicopter bases. Qatar and Saudi Arabia had meanwhile started to supply weapons. Supporting the Syrian rebellion became a big players’ game.

“It’s very expensive,” explained another donor, who said he, too, has had to cut off support for the rebels, even though he believes it is a “duty.”

Financial exhaustion is not the only reason support from individual donors has fallen. A fighter from the northern province of Idlib dates the decline in his group’s support from individual sponsors in the Gulf and elsewhere to the United States’ designation in December of the extremist rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra as a terrorist organization. The idea of even accidentally helping fighters affiliated with the group was too risky for some businessmen.

Smaller groups feel the reduced contributions from individual businessmen most. The mounting pressure on them can be seen in the funding and logistics hubs of southern Turkey, where the word da’ameen — support — peppers every conversation. “They’re always telling us to wait,” grumbled one middle-aged fighter after getting off the phone from a potential supporter.

In theory, this should result in greater consolidation of rebel groups as smaller units cluster around those who have access to resources, either from captured booty, still active fundraising networks or the Saudi- and Qatari-backed Supreme Military Council.

The trend since the second half of last year has been toward the formation of larger alliances, said Aron Lund, a Swedish researcher.

But alliances and affiliations are often tenuous. Support to the rebellion is still given on a less than systematic basis. For smaller groups, the possibility of a new source of sponsorship is always just around the corner, hindering cohesion.

“A few battalions have several names — they have promised this or that funder they’ll be loyal to him and then get money from somewhere else,” Hokayem said.

The Supreme Military Council itself does not seem to be getting enough support to bind people to it. In a recent interview with the Financial Times, the body’s leader, Gen. Selim Idriss, estimated that he was receiving just one-tenth of the rebellion’s needs, citing lack of ammunition as the reason for the recent defeat in the siege of the Wadi Deif military base in Idlib province.

“We are with them, but not with them,” said one fighter from a small unit in Latakia describing his group’s relationship with the Supreme Military Council. “We take from here and there.”

The businessman certainly doesn’t see any evidence of commitment among his former beneficiaries. “Right now they are with one brigade, next another,” he said. “They are following the money.”

— Financial Times

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