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.