The freewheeling nature of the private assistance has prompted attempts by gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to restrict donations to Syrian fighters by charities and wealthy individuals. But Sunni-led governments in Bahrain and, most notably, Kuwait, have largely declined to interfere with private fundraising efforts.
McCants, the former State Department adviser, attributed Kuwait’s prominent role to relatively weak terrorism finance laws and to the country’s large and politically connected community of Salafists, who practice an austere form of Islam.
Among the Kuwaitis, no one is more public about the Syria fundraising than Ajmi, scion of a prominent Kuwaiti family whose vast wealth was derived from oil and construction businesses. Ajmi and a small group of relatives and partners have aggressively promoted their Popular Commission charity on social media while making numerous trips to Syria to meet with leaders of favored rebel groups.
Ajmi’s Web postings have featured photos of the bushy-bearded sheik posing with Syrian rebel leaders, including the head of Liwaa al-Umma, a Syrian rebel group whose Web site calls for the establishment of “Islamic governance” in post-Assad Syria.
Ajmi, who did not respond to a request for an interview, has been unabashed in taking credit for his role in supporting the rebels. His prolific tweets include near-daily appeals for donations “for mujahid” — literally, “holy warriors” — in Syria, as well as for civilian victims of the civil war, which began as an uprising in March 2011. His online messages are often accompanied by photos of Syrian children killed or wounded in the fighting.
Mouaz Moustafa, director of the Syria Emergency Task Force, which supports humanitarian efforts in Syria, acknowledged that private donors have made positive contributions by helping deliver essential supplies to communities destroyed by fighting.
“Humanitarian aid from outside groups is not only good, it’s essential,” said Moustafa, who escorted Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) during his surprise visit last month to northern Syria.
But, he added, the aid “becomes problematic when you see private groups deciding to arm different brigades. It undermines unity, and it hurts the opposition in the long run.”
Other analysts noted that the rebels already are badly and perhaps hopelessly fragmented, a problem for which many say the West deserves at least part of the blame. Mustafa Alani, a counterterrorism expert at the Dubai-based Gulf Research Council, said private donors became power brokers among rebel groups by default because the United States and other Western powers declined to support more moderate groups within the Syrian opposition.
“The Obama administration was always afraid that the wrong side would get the weapons,” Alani said. “But now we have a situation in which the wrong side already has them. And that side is self-supplying and self-financing.”
Julie Tate contributed to this report.