Syria: Rich Kuwaitis raising thousands for rebels

Former Kuwaiti MP Falah al-Sawagh helps a child make a donation to Syrian rebels. Picture: Reuters
Former Kuwaiti MP Falah al-Sawagh helps a child make a donation to Syrian rebels. Picture: Reuters
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AT A traditional evening meeting known as a “diwaniya”, Kuwaiti men drop banknotes into a box, opening a campaign to arm up to 12,000 anti-government fighters in Syria. A new Mercedes is parked outside to be auctioned off for cash.

The men are Sunni Muslim and mainly Islamist, like many Syrian rebels who have been trying for two years to overthrow president Bashar al-Assad, a member of the minority Alawite sect, a branch of Shiite Islam.

“The world has abandoned the Syrian people and the Syrian revolution, so it is normal that people start to give money to people who are fighting,” said Falah al-Sawagh, a former opposition member of Kuwait’s parliament, surrounded by friends drinking sweet tea and eating cakes.

In just four hours, the campaign collected 80,000 dinars (£185,000). The box moves to a new house each day for a week.

Mr Sawagh estimates this type of campaign in Kuwait, one of the world’s richest countries per capita, raised several million dollars during the last Ramadan religious holiday.

Syria’s war has widened a faultline in the Middle East, with Shiite Iran and Lebanese militia Hezbollah backing Mr Assad and Sunni-ruled Gulf Arab nations supporting his opponents.

Unlike Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Kuwaiti government policy is against arming the rebels. But Kuwait allows more public debate than other Gulf states and has tolerated campaigns in private houses or on social media.

Kuwaiti authorities are nevertheless worried the fundraising for Syria could stir sectarian tensions – Kuwait has its own Shiite minority – while the West fears support will bolster al-Qaeda militants among the rebels.

Some opposition Islamist politicians and Sunni clerics have openly campaigned to arm rebel fighters, using social media and posters with telephone hotlines in public places. Former MP Waleed al-Tabtabie, a conservative Salafi Islamist, posted pictures of himself on Twitter clad in combat gear in Syria.

Syria is blocked from international bank transfers from Kuwait because of sanctions, so former Mr Sawagh visited the Syrian town of Aleppo last month with cash in his luggage for rebel fighters. He did not say how much he took.

“Our only rule is to collect money and to deliver this money to our brothers which are helping the Syrian people,” said Mr Sawagh, a member of a local group linked to the Muslim Brotherhood which is in power in Egypt and is influential in other Arab states.

“They have absolute freedom to spend this money. If they can recruit mujahideen for defending themselves and their sanctity with this money, then this is their choice,” he said, referring to fighters who engage in jihad or holy war.

A fiery speech by Kuwaiti Sunni Muslim cleric Shafi al-Ajami raised alarm this month with a call for more arms.

“The mujahideen, we are arming them from here, and from the Arabian Peninsula, the Gulf states, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey,” he said. The speech was laced with references to the sectarian nature of the conflict and unnerved authorities in Kuwait where Shiites make up an estimated 15-20 per cent of the population.

The emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah, said on state television: “I do not hide from you feelings of anxiety about … manifestations and practices that carry the abhorrent breath of sectarianism which should be denounced,” adding that such acts could “lure the fire of fanaticism and extremism”.