It is difficult to obtain reliable estimates of the amount of non-official aid given to Syrian groups. The donors are private citizens, and the deliveries typically take the form of cash-stuffed suitcases handed off to rebel emissaries at the Turkish border. Government experts and private analysts say the figure is certainly well into the millions of dollars. It is roughly the same pattern of private giving that funded the mujahideen fighters in Afghanistan and, years later, the militant Islamist movement that came to be known as al-Qaeda, analysts say.
Virtually all of the money from gulf states flows to anti-Assad forces that share a similar Sunni Arab background. Similar cash flows have bolstered pro-Assad forces in Syria, analysts say, including donations from Shiites in Iraq, Iran and Lebanon, mirroring the larger regional schism between the two major branches of Islam. Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group based in Lebanon, has provided fighters and training for Syrian government forces.
Clues about the impact of private giving can be gained from the YouTube and Facebook postings of several Syrian groups that acknowledged gifts with online thank-you notes. Last year, the Syrian Revolutionary Front, an Islamist organization with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, acknowledged receiving nearly $600,000 from the Popular Commission to Support the Syrian People, a fund managed by Ajmi and another Kuwaiti sheik, Irshid al-Hajri.
Ahar al-Sham, considered one of the most radical of the Syrian Islamist militias, recorded a similar public thank-you for $400,000 the group says it received from the same fund. In its Web posting, the group specifically thanked Ajmi and Hajri, saying it “asks God to reward them and those behind them with the best of rewards.”
In an interview with the international Arab newspaper al-Hayat, an Ahar al-Sham official said private gifts are highly valued because they are not subject to government interference or corruption.
“The difference is that the aid that comes to us reaches us directly. As for the other factions, the aid they receive stops in Istanbul and does not reach Syria,” said the official, identified as Abu Zayd, the militia’s officer in charge of enforcing sharia law. He described the group’s principle backers as “Syrian expatriates in the gulf in addition to Arab and international charitable societies.”
Most of the private support comes as cash — usually dollars or euros. The money enables militias to buy whatever weapons are available on the region’s bustling black market, free of limits or restrictions attached to government money, analysts say.