On the eve of conflict in March 2011, Syria was a repressive, middle-income country of 22-23 million people in which wealth was heavily aggregated at the top of the pyramid. Abrogation of human rights was routine and widespread.1 The term "middle income" belies the pronounced societal and economic inequality in Syria, where government institutions lacked accountability and were plagued by corruption. Members of the ruling Assad family and their inner circle are said to own and control a major portion of the Syrian economy.2 It must also be noted that Syria enjoyed extremely high literacy rates of approximately 90 percent, immunization rates for childhood diseases nearing 90 percent, and a population that was quite well nourished, in part due to unsustainable subsidies on food, thanks to Syria's fairly small oil and gas reserves.3
Exacerbating the political repression and economic challenges, four consecutive years of drought led up to the outbreak of protests in 2011. Such was the impact of the drought, and government responses so ineffective, that approximately 200,000 farmers and their families were displaced from their lands, moving into urban slums encircling Syria's cities in search of scarce day labor. Thus, Syria's conflict has been steeped in a complex brew of politics, economics and climate change.
The grotesque mismanagement of protests when they first erupted in the Arab Spring of 2011 condemned the country to the misery of the past six years (and counting). Unarmed citizens who did not call for regime change but merely for reforms were shot, arrested, tortured and disappeared. It was these government actions that sparked the armed resistance, an escalation many Syrians view as having been necessary to protect nonviolent protesters.
Six years later, more than 5 million Syrians are refugees and close to 7 million are internally displaced4 — more than half of Syria's original population driven from their homes. The counting of the dead stopped in 2014 at 250,000.5 Responsible estimates suggest approximately half a million dead now and 2 million injured, many of whom are permanently disabled;6 life expectancy has declined by 20 years. UNICEF estimates a loss of human capital valued at $10.5 billion due to cessation of schooling for Syrian children. It is estimated that at least $100-200 billion will be required to reconstruct the country's roads, electrical and water systems, and other infrastructure. Under the most favorable economic circumstances, a modest estimate of 20 years would be required to return the economy to pre-conflict GDP levels.7
We argue that donor funding in and around the Syrian civil war is profoundly politicized and actually fuels conflict by enabling and engendering multiple actors and contradictory agendas, even when it is asserted that the money is intended to foster the conditions for peace, promote moderation, meet humanitarian needs, and reduce or oppose extremism. The funding efforts directed at Syria are often uncoordinated and could be described as "driving blind." This is redundant and wasteful, causing harm to vulnerable Syrians. We will introduce the actors in the conflict, discuss strategy and conflict drivers, and then address the question of funding and how if fuels the conflict.
It is germane to examine the multiplicity of actors who are party to the Syrian conflict. Their existence and sustenance are directly related to the uncoordinated and nonstrategic funding flows that support them. One side, the regime, comprises four entities: Syria, Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. These principals are augmented by Iraqi and Afghan militias comprising Shia partisans.
Since the early days of the revolution, the regime has had the distinct advantage of a unifying strategic purpose: to maintain control and return to the status quo ante, the Syrian state within Sykes-Picot borders, led by Alawites.8 The current president, Bashar al-Assad, inherited his position from his father in 2000. Hafez, shrewd and merciless, had assumed power in 1970 in a military coup d'état and held on to the country by force for three decades. This iron control, however, was eroded by the rivalry between Hafez and his brother Rifaat, culminating in a failed coup and Rifaat's exile. The legacy of aggressive insecurity within the Assad family has informed their response to the revolution. The government of the Assad family has coopted other minority groups including Shia, Ismaili and Christians in a majority Sunni country by casting itself as a non-sectarian protector. Sunni elites in Damascus and Aleppo submitted to the yoke as long as their business interests were protected. Eventually the rapacious behavior of Bashar and his cousin Rami Makhlouf served to destabilize this delicate balance.
Russia's complex relationship with Syria is deeply rooted in the Cold War, well beyond the purview of this paper. Suffice it to say that Russia has become the single most decisive player in the Syrian conflict — heavily involved politically and militarily in order to advance itself as an international power, maintain its foothold in the Middle East and keep its military base at the Mediterranean port of Tartous.
Iran, a Shia-dominated theocracy, is eager to maintain its sphere of influence in the region and perhaps extend it. Important to Iranian interests is the maintenance of the "Shia crescent" stretching from Iran, across Shia-majority Iraq, through Syria and into southern Lebanon. Also significant to Iran is its competition with regional rival Saudi Arabia. These two countries are involved in at least two proxy wars at present, in Syria and Yemen. Iran is also concerned with its fraught relationship with the West, in particular the United States.
Hezbollah is the Shia-dominant political and security actor in Lebanon, anxious to maintain a direct route and connection to Iran, its sponsor and supporter. Hezbollah represents, among other things, a formidable fighting force — well-armed and highly disciplined — that has been a mainstay in bolstering the Syrian Arab Army (SAA). Aside from its diehard Alawi core, this military suffers from a lack of manpower, poor training and low morale among its hapless conscripts. Hezbollah is keenly aware, as is everyone in Lebanon, that what happens in Syria directly impacts power balances in Lebanon. Success by the Sunni opposition in Syria would be very bad news for Hezbollah.
The antagonists to the regime, the opposition, include the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Islamists and the Salafi-jihadis. The opposition suffers the distinct disadvantage of having an incoherent strategy and diffuse goals, profoundly exacerbated by funding patterns.
The FSA appeared in the first months of the 2011 demonstrations in a response to the violent government crackdowns on protesters. The FSA originally comprised SAA soldiers defecting in disgust at the warfare tactics being used on unarmed citizens. The group was moderate and allied with the communities from which its members sprang. Today, the FSA consists of a number of fairly small groups, in large part clients of those who fund them. While these groups are not "democratic" and do not have a well-developed appreciation for human rights, they are not Salafi-jihadis. They are looking for a Syria characterized by the original values of the revolution: freedom, dignity and respect for rights. It is estimated that there are 3,000 FSA fighters in northern Syria, and 6,000 in the south.9
There is no bright line between Islamist armed groups and the FSA: Syrians familiar with the landscape differentiate between them on the basis of their history and affiliations and where they stand on a comparative spectrum. Islamist armed groups include Ahrar ash-Sham (20,000-23,000 fighters) and Jaysh Al Islam (12,000), two very large and influential groups, as well as Failaq Ash-Sham (7,000).10 Ahrar ash-Sham, following the unsolved assassination of its entire first and second leadership tiers in 2014, has had an ongoing flirtation with the more extreme Jabhat an-Nusra/Jabhat Fateh ash-Sham but has remained relatively centrist. The Islamist groups are supported by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, among others.11
Jabhat an-Nusra (JAN), the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, has recently restyled itself as Jabhat Fateh ash-Sham (JFS) and allegedly renounced its fealty to al-Qaeda. Few observers believe this claim or think it signals a major political or social repositioning. The group is reported to have around 20,000 fighters, although all such figures can be disputed in a civil war.12 Jabhat an-Nusra is Salafi-jihadi, a group aspirating to an Islamic emirate or caliphate, as opposed to parliamentary or electoral systems favored by other groups.
JAN/JFS has been successful, in part, due to Syrians' disappointment with the international failure to support the FSA in the early days and their effectiveness as a fighting force. In addition, they initially provided a sense of cohesiveness in the face of the regime and the opposition's fragmentation. The rise of JAN/JFS is a prime example of extremists being empowered by the failure to support moderates. As the Syrian civil war has developed into a global proxy war, the countries of the Arabian Gulf are heavily involved, funding various groups and sides. Most notable are Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the Saudi businessmen who appear to be important funders of JAN/JFS.13
The Islamic State in Iraq and Sham (ISIS) is in a category of its own and not really part of the rest of the Syrian armed-group moderate-to-extreme spectrum. ISIS operates independently of other opposition groups, and its goals are not even slightly aligned with those of the more indigenous Syrian opposition. Furthermore, the FSA, Islamists and JFS are bedeviled by the lack of a joint strategic approach and seem to spend almost as much time fighting each other as they do fighting the regime. However, they are clear that they are largely Syrian and looking for a Syrian solution to governance issues. ISIS, by contrast, is building a transnational Islamic caliphate that would dissolve current national borders and identities. In fact, ISIS has posed at times a greater threat to the Syrian opposition than does the regime. Finally, ISIS is sort of a parasite, originally an Iraqi phenomenon with a certain international appeal that has taken advantage of the ungoverned space and chaos in Syria.
In fact, it sometimes seems that ISIS may actually be working in tacit support of the regime. Its extreme agenda and exhibitionistic brutality certainly provide a powerful foil for a regime claiming to be a lawful state fending off terrorists. The sources of funding for ISIS are not clear, but they operate much like a nation-state in their control over resources and people.14
Turkey is another very influential and high-profile actor in the Syria conflict that is in a category of its own. Its long land border, its status as the single-largest Syrian refugee-receiving country, and its complex relationship with the Kurds have made it impossible for Turkey to ignore Syria — even if it had wished to. In fact, however, Turkey has had no desire to ignore Syria and has been very involved in the conflict, as the ruling AK Party seeks to carve out a leadership position in the region and internationally. In addition, there are deep economic interests and now the direct occupation of Syrian territory and Turkish military involvement in the fight.
Finally, two powerful actors must be mentioned: the United States and the United Kingdom, both militarily involved in Syria.15 American support for Syrian Kurdish forces and the SDF in particular has the potential to complicate matters with both the Turks and Arab Syrians. The United States and the UK are also involved in train-and-equip programs that give every appearance of being militarily ineffectual while sparking suspicion and anger in all quarters. This assistance is viewed by many observers as emasculating the FSA, a "beneficiary," particularly in southern Syria.
The lack of a strategic approach, either at the international multilateral level or even with specific donors, drives conflict in Syria. There are a multiplicity of views and purported desired outcomes. Unsurprisingly, the regime and the opposition want very different things. The regime, as previously noted, has benefited from having an overarching goal: maintenance of the regime itself and a return to the status quo ante.
Another potential goal, as suggested solutions to the conflict become substitutes for strategy, is the creation of a federated state that would allow the now bitterly divided constituencies in Syria to control their own affairs to a degree. In some ways, all parties want this; it now seems unimaginable to many Syrians that they could trust Syrians of other sects or persuasions as they did in the past. At the same time, nobody really wants it, with the exception perhaps of the Syrian Kurds. With coalition16 support and Turkish opposition, they are trying to forge a contiguous area of control along the northern border of the country.17 The Kurdish push for this autonomous control is fueling Sunni alarm and hostility.
Aside from Kurdish sentiment, the opposition seems unified in its objective of a new government ruling over all of Syria as defined by Sykes-Picot. However, any semblance of coherence regarding what the form of that government would be and who would lead it disintegrates upon the most cursory of inspections. With so many military groups and other stakeholders — local councils, NGOs and representative bodies, many of whom are simply job/income-creation enterprises responsive to different donors, or the same donor through different funding streams, and none powerful enough to dominate the rest — it is natural that there is division.
Another strategic outcome at play in Syria, and beyond, is the effort by ISIS to establish a transnational caliphate that would be a home to Sunni Muslims of a particularly extreme and fundamentalist stripe. JFS is not aligned with ISIS — the two groups appear to be mutually hostile — but JFS seeks an Islamic emirate. A distinction from ISIS is that the largely, albeit not exclusively, Syrian JFS is proposing to be part of a transnational Islamic entity, but not the Islamic entity.
Turkey is, of course, pursuing its own interests in Syria. Broadly speaking, those interests are to expand the Turkish sphere of influence and hegemony, to contain the Kurds, whom Ankara views as an existential threat, and to support and promote Sunni domination — although not along the lines of an Islamic caliphate or emirate, but more centrist.18
THREE SPHERES OF CONFLICT
In Syria there are, literally, hundreds of spheres of conflict at this point, six years into the civil war. For the sake of discussion, we will limit ourselves to three primary ones. The first falls along the Sunni-Shia fault line. The March 2011 revolution did not start out as a Sunni against Shia fight (the Alawi sect so heavily represented in Syria's political elite is a heterodox sect).19 Rather, the revolution started as a popular rebellion against a dictatorial regime that then deliberately played the sectarian card. This brought into play all the international actors worried about "Islamic terrorism," as well as the Shia theocracy of Iran, the Sunni theocracy of Saudi Arabia, ISIS, the Iraq-embroiled Americans and the regionally ambitious Turkey.
The international community played a significant role in fomenting this Sunni-Shia conflict. Funders lined up on both sides of the divide, supporting armed groups and militias perceived to be fighting for or defending a particular point of view. The United States has sought to fund moderate Sunnis; and Iran has provided support to Shia militias from as far away as Pakistan. The regime has ceaselessly stirred this pot, since a sectarian fight naturally brings in Iran and Hezbollah, invaluable allies.
The second sphere of conflict in Syria is the Sunni-Sunni fault line. The failure of the international community to support the moderate FSA in the early days of the revolution, combined with the violent response of the regime, led to various FSA groups casting about for funding. As a result, many armed groups have become highly donor driven, the funding distorting the conflict and muddying the revolution's message and intent. For example, in November 2016, Ahrar ash Sham, funded by Saudi Arabia, fought with Jabhat Ash-Shamiya, funded by Turkey and Qatar, for control of the Bab As-Salama border crossing between Turkey and Syria, north of Aleppo city. The fighting finally came to an end when Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia resolved the dispute on behalf of their clients, but not before 40 people were killed.
Of course, Sunni-Sunni fault lines also include the tensions between the hegemonic ISIS and almost everyone else and Salifi-jihadi groups like JFS and more moderate or even Western-leaning groups. The tension within the Sunni community itself over the spectrum of interpretation and application of Islam is real and dangerous. In fact, the Syrian civil war has been a long litany of internecine battles and assassinations inside the Sunni opposition.20 Even within the relatively focused and unified JFS, there are tensions between the more extreme and less extreme Salafists.
The Sunni-Sunni fault line has an additional derivative: it has been a significant contributor to the flight of refugees from Syria. Of course, the original source of displacement and the generation of the huge refugee movement is the overwhelming and indiscriminate violence of the Assad regime. This fact should not be understated. That said, Sunni-Sunni conflict, most particularly the threats and pressures from extremist groups like JAN/JFS and ISIS, have constituted for many Syrians the final straw. This exodus has deprived Syria of many educated and experienced people, those who could potentially provide effective moderate leadership and contribute to solutions. It must also be said that the refugee flow, particularly the big surge of 2015 into Europe, has inevitably carried with it some extremists. Their presence in Europe introduces a whole new destructive element to the war with roots in the Sunni-Sunni conflict.
The third primary sphere of conflict is Kurdish-Arab. This growing and dangerous fault line builds on a historic minority's sense of grievance and insecurity, opportunistic international funding, and the Turkish-Kurdish dispute, now at a level that could be described as a civil war. Sunni Arab and Kurdish activists have very strong views on what constitutes a viable future for Syria, with Syrian Kurds strongly favoring a semi-autonomous Kurdish area in a federated state.21 Sunni Arab Syrians see this and the underlying arguments of grievance and exclusion as a thinly veiled step towards joining a larger Kurdish state. This scenario is, for much of the opposition, unacceptable, since it splits a country for which they have fought hard. The fear, in fact, appears to be solidly grounded in actual, if not always openly stated, Kurdish ambitions.22
The question of the Kurds is likely to represent a spoiler element in the effort to resolve the Syrian war. The United States and the West are funding and supporting the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which are dominated by the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (Yekineyen Parastina Gel, YPG), who have a very close relationship with the Turkish Kurdish Workers' Party (Partiya Karkeren Kurdistane, PKK) and compete with the Kurds in northern Iraq. The SDF are viewed with apprehension by Arab populations, accused, rightly or wrongly, of human-rights abuses and ethnic cleansing in areas under their control.23 They are being used by the West as boots on the ground in the fight with ISIS, enabling them to pursue their goal of a united Kurdish area stretching across much of northern Syria. Of course, such an autonomous Kurdish area would only serve to entrench Turkey further in the Syrian conflict.
The fact that Turkey is now fighting Kurds on Syrian territory should not be underestimated in terms of its potential to expand and prolong the conflict. It appears that if the Kurdish forces within the SDF do not pull back from the majority-Arab areas around Menbij and Raqqa and north to the Turkish border, Turkey will remain militarily engaged on Syrian soil indefinitely. A further vexation is that the United States is actively supporting the SDF, which lines matters up for potential Turkish-American strife.
FUNDING THE CONFLICT
Funding for Syria comes from large institutional donors, the Arabian Gulf, private businessmen, Russia, Iran and a range of other actors. As there are hundreds of conflicts in Syria, there is also a multiplicity of donors. It is argued that this diversity of donors, the lack of strategy and coordination, and competing agendas mean that donor funding fuels the conflict, even when its explicitly stated purpose is inter alia to reduce human suffering, support moderates/democratic values, stabilize communities and oppose extremism. What are some of the major funding streams?
Humanitarian funding is largely, although by no means exclusively, Western in nature. It includes not only very large institutional donors, but also assistance from expatriate Syrians, regime funding to the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) and Gulf charitable funding. It is intended to meet the basic needs of Syrians impacted by the conflict and is delivered by a wide range of international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs), Syrian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and community-based organizations (CBOs) as well as the United Nations. Nobody knows exactly how much funding there is, in part because of the lack of coordination. To provide a modest sampler, the 2016 OCHA-led UN appeal, which is fairly well coordinated but does not capture all donors, for Syria alone is $3 billion and is 45 percent funded.24 All Syria humanitarian appeals together reach almost $8 billion, with half of the requested funding provided.25
Stabilisation/development/resilience money, mostly from the big humanitarian-funding countries, focuses less on meeting immediate needs for food, shelter, water and medical care and more on development in support of a political agenda: structures, knowledge, skills and attitudes for a future Syria. Stabilization and development funding, while significant, is notably less than that for humanitarian aims, partly because donors have been unwilling to take development risks or invest strategically enough to program effectively in a hot war. In fact, it is almost impossible to estimate how much of this kind of funding is being spent on an annual basis; it is very poorly, if at all, coordinated among donors and implementers.
When pressed for more robust support at the development end of an admittedly unclear continuum of funding (from humanitarian/emergency-response, resilience/stabilization to development), most donors have cited policy constraints.26 The unhappy result has been that humanitarian funding has been unrealistically stretched to try to meet real development needs — for example, children's schooling. Education is a field that requires planning and consistency and is not best conducted on the 6-12 month funding cycles typical of humanitarian aid. A paucity of development and resilience funding has also consigned Syrians to a hand-to-mouth existence, increasingly dependent on handouts and lacking the ability to fend for themselves in a dignified manner. It may be argued that it is somehow viewed as better to simply let economic, capital and human assets wither than invest in trying to maintain them.
Examples of the work supported in the stabilization/development/resilience funding stream are (opposition) government-institution building, civil-society capacity building, agriculture, gender and support to the free Syrian police, local councils and opposition border patrols, as well as strategic communications.
Another very important funding stream, and one that sparks outright conflict between armed groups and their communities in Syria, is military assistance. Obviously, very high-value military assistance is flowing into Syria. All actors — the regime, the Arabian Gulf, Russia, Turkey and the countries that comprise the coalition — are selling or providing weapons and training to armed groups across the spectrum. It is unknown how much money is going through this pipeline, but a look at estimates of just what the U.S. campaign against ISIS costs, roughly $11 million a day, or $5.5 billion between August 2014 and January 2016, makes the indicative scale clear.27
There is also what could be characterized as "semi-covert" funding from the same donors who are doing humanitarian, development and military work in Syria. This semi-covert funding focuses on countering the narratives of the regime, JFS/JAN and ISIS. Because the work is discrete, fragmented and uncoordinated, it is difficult to ascertain how much money is involved. It is also fair to note that, in light of the targets, the work, while in large part falling in the technical realm of communications and freedom of speech, can be extremely dangerous; none of the parties brook dissent well. While the work itself is largely unobjectionable, it is so scattered and short-term in its goals as to be nonstrategic. Funding goes to groups and individuals on the ground in Syria with little visibility or awareness of who else may be operating in the same space. This funding stream also supports some of the human-rights work and the data/information-collection of evidence in eventual accountability mechanisms for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Of course, as in any theater of operation like Syria, there is also covert funding. While little or nothing is known about this funding — levels, targets, goals — its existence has a potent knock-on effect in terms of perceptions and conflict. Accusations of "spying" and "collaborating" are some of the most freely bandied about in Syria, breeding a profound mistrust of organizations and individuals that are externally funded — in particular, Western-funded. The presence of covert funding and its invisibility undermines community acceptance of national actors and can quickly spark violence.
On a final, ugly note, Syria, like all conflicts, has enabled, and is funded by, the drug trade,28 human trafficking,29 the sex trade,30 trafficking in human organs,31 and mafias.32 It is also important to remember the weapons trade and economy and their impact on conflict in Syria. In many areas, one can discern who supports groups by the weapons they carry. For example, it is reported that in Jarablus, at present, Turkish weapons are ascendant. In one area of Deir Azzour there is a small FSA group that allegedly carries exclusively American weapons, viewed as a sure sign of their funding source. Idlib Governorate has a very diverse weapons profile in keeping with its alphabet soup of armed actors.33
FUNDING, THE FUEL OF CONFLICT
The plethora of donors and multiple funding streams (humanitarian, stabilization, development, semi-covert, military) fuels conflict because it is nonstrategic and poorly coordinated, creating competition and instability. Furthermore, the funding often creates and perpetuates power brokers in communities that have no real acceptance or legitimacy, breeding resentment and resistance. As described above, a tremendous amount of funding is being directed at Syria — and, in light of the human toll and geopolitical importance the conflict has assumed, this is appropriate. In fact, it would appear more funding should be apportioned to Syria. But that funding should also be strategic and coordinated to avoid waste and unintended consequences.
At present, there is no agreed-upon strategy, particularly among those supporting the opposition and/or fighting designated extremist groups like ISIS or JFS/JAN. In fact, each individual donor lacks a strategy, with humanitarian funding and stabilization funding not "speaking" to each other and both disconnected from semi-covert and military funding streams. Part of this disconnect can be ascribed to legitimate rationales. However, that does not lessen the negative impact. Humanitarians and their funders will assert that their money is intended to be apolitical and life-saving, and in fact it often is the latter. However, it appears undeniable that all assistance funding, however benevolent, is political. The rationales are clearly and frankly stated in documents to legislators34 requesting apportionment and in the proposals of the implementing partners to donors. While there is a marked lack of consensus about the desired outcome in Syria, the international community is, at the same time, developing and supporting a wide range of overlapping and interconnected groups and individuals. Is it any surprise, then, that this helter-skelter funding has created such a fragmented and competitive "Syria response"? The situation resembles opposing basketball or football teams, each one playing for a different owner.
The lack of strategy is notable, because it divides, and thereby weakens, the opposition to the regime as groups compete for funding. The competition becomes violent and internecine and therefore inimical to some of the stated strategic goals of big donors: promoting moderation and negotiated solutions and opposing extremism.
An example of this can be seen in the patterns of funding of Ahrar ash-Sham and Jabhat an-Nusra in 2013-14. Initially, Ahrar ash-Sham appears to have been receiving funding from official Saudi sources, while Jabhat an-Nusra was funded by individual Saudi businessmen who subscribed to Nusra's philosophical approach.35 After the 2014 assassination of the tier 1 and 2 Ahrar leadership, Saudi Arabia attempted to balance funding between Ahrar and JAN, while also funding a different group, Jaysh Al-Islam, in southern Syria. Although blacklisted, JAN received support from Turkey through casting a blind eye to the cross-border fuel trade. Turkey also became more closely involved with Ahrar and, in 2014, when tensions between the armed groups controlling the Bab al Hawa border crossing escalated, Turkey decisively weighed in to assure Ahrar control. Qatar has also been a consistent funder of Ahrar, more in the sense of keeping its hand in the game than due to a particular philosophical bent (Saudis) or geostrategic concerns (Turkey). With Ahrar and JAN receiving funding from different streams, the two began to impose their own "philosophical" views and strategies, which were, of course, closely aligned with the views of their donors, creating divisions. Not only did the two groups compete, often violently, for Saudi and Turkish funding; the very different worldviews of those two donors and their funding streams have encouraged division within Ahrar ash-Sham itself, fueling a difficult-to-manage rift between a Salifist trend and a more moderate one within the movement.
It is also worth noting that JAN/JFS, originally receiving significant funding from Saudi business donors and supplementing that income with illegal fuel transfers, black-market trade in archaeological treasures and misappropriation from other funding streams, behaved in a strategic manner as they established themselves in 2014. They carefully observed mistakes and sources of tension for already established armed groups and noted that salaries for fighters were a constant problem. As a result, they pegged their salary scale higher (reportedly by as a much as 40 percent) than competitors, thereby attracting recruits from across the spectrum. Donors supporting more moderate groups did not appear to notice this manpower migration strengthening a designated extremist organization and therefore did not respond in a strategic or coordinated manner.36
Another example of funding streams creating conflict can be seen with Jabhat Janubiyya (FSA groups in the south of Syria) or Noureddin Zinki (a northern FSA group), both receiving funds from Friends of Syria.37 In the south, the FSA groups are highly responsive to donor wishes. In the north, the FSA was expected by the donors to fight ISIS and the regime with the result, as the Western donors focused more exclusively on ISIS, that these FSA groups also turned their attention away from resisting the regime to fighting ISIS, thereby dividing the entire resistance front. In the recent catastrophic battle for Aleppo, amid scenes of humanitarian degradation and outrageous state-level war crimes, two FSA groups, Sultan Murad and Fastakem Kma Omert, fought each other in the shrinking space of eastern Aleppo. Why were they facing off against each other instead of opposing the existential threat from the advancing regime forces, and how were they enabled to do so? Sultan Murad, supported entirely by Turkey, sought, in line with the Turkish position, a more negotiated solution to the Aleppo crisis, while Fatakem Kma Omert, funded by Qatar and Friends of Syria, wanted to stand and fight the regime.
Syrian communities tend to be suspicious of Western support for armed groups, a standard view being that Western governments, most notably the United States, do not really want anyone to win the war and therefore provide just enough funds to keep the conflict going. Therefore funding intended to support the moderate armed opposition can actually undermine community acceptance of these groups. The nebulous definition of "moderation" also does not help with strategic direction. By way of comparison, regime players (GoS, Iran, Russia, Hezbollah) are quite strategic; their goal is to maintain the hegemony of the regime in Sykes-Picot-delineated Syria. This confers on them a great advantage.
Beyond the damage caused by a non-strategic approach within individual donors and across the donor community at large, a lack of coordination among donors, across funding streams and between implementing organizations, also drives conflict in Syria.
Humanitarian funding in response to the Syrian conflict is fairly well coordinated in comparison to other streams, but it suffers from the very significant conflict between the UN in Damascus and other actors. Syria is a UN member state, and that status empowers the government of Syria in the formal humanitarian coordination process. UN Damascus tries to work within that parameter, negotiating a very difficult space, trying to live up to humanitarian and human-rights principles while heavily dominated and controlled by a regime that has repeatedly demonstrated indifference to these principles and to the suffering of innocent civilians.38
The United Nations and the humanitarian community serving refugee communities and opposition areas struggle to meet requirements of neutrality, impartiality and do-no-harm. They can't do this while sharing sensitive information with, or taking orders from, the government of Syria, which, at the end of the day, is a party to the conflict, a party that has demonstrated a great willingness to torment and starve out entire populations.39 This conflict between UN Damascus and the rest of the humanitarian community has bedeviled humanitarian coordination for years.
Humanitarian funding is not coordinated with other funding streams, leading to duplication and the development of what are, in a sense, warlords or war profiteers. It is important to note that this failure to coordinate is not just at the field level, but also at the donor level. In fact, individual donors are often unable to adequately understand or coordinate the work being pursued within the separate funding streams of their own governments. Furthermore, there is every appearance that "driving blind" also takes place at the level of the capitals of the major players. It is unclear that anyone at this level has a comprehensive and strategic view of the funding engagements.
The Syrian conflict has created a class of middle men, individuals able to speak English and operate in the Western context of "needs assessment," proposal development and report writing. These individuals have become the arbiters of the funding desperately needed by communities. This fact does not make them legitimate, nor does it make them representative, although they are almost always allowed to speak on behalf of their countrymen and women.
One example of people negatively empowered and fueling conflict within the community is the internally displaced persons (IDP) camp managers. There are IDP camps all over Syria, but they are particularly dense along the Syria/Turkey border across Latakia, Idlib and Aleppo governorates. Individuals rent or own land and then sublease rent plots to IDPs, who are extremely vulnerable. These camp managers almost always have opaque relationships with armed groups. Camp managers confiscate assets, insist on kickbacks and generally extort what they can from the humanitarian community, sometimes trafficking in persons, and generally rent-seeking. However, they are the interface with the humanitarian community, in a sense holding hostage the entire population that humanitarians must serve. More effective coordination of assistance to IDPs would help disempower this class of "camp manager."
The lack of coordination has at times actually empowered the Salafi-jihadists. For example, JFS has effectively preyed on implementers who are weakened by a lack of solidarity and unaware that they are operating and delivering assets in the same space. In terms of solidarity, implementers eager to continue to deliver their program make concessions that can divert support to organizations like JFS. This breach of operating protocol by one organization or another emboldens JFS (and its individual commanders or "amirs"), making it much harder and more risky for others to resist its pressure. At times, inadvertent flooding of the market with non-food items, for example, makes these assets easier to divert away from intended beneficiaries. In Syria, where jobs are highly valued, for obvious reasons, pressure by armed groups, including the salifi-jihadists, to hire "their people" is constant. With these individuals in place, they can then divert other assets such as construction contracts. When there is a lack of communication, coordination and information-sharing across the donor and implementation community, awareness of these individuals and the games they play is more easily masked.
Through waste, duplication, creation of middlemen/power brokers/warlords and fueling of conflict between increasingly fragmented armed groups — not to mention the sheer levels of violence enabled by a robust arms trade and aerial bombardment in the name of defeating "terrorists" — funding to Syria is actually causing harm to vulnerable Syrians.
Assistance funding for Syria is critically needed. But it does not have to deepen the divisions, create problems where there were none, exacerbate tensions and drive conflict. To reduce these pernicious effects, a number of steps can be taken at the capital, donor and field/implementer levels.
At the capital and field levels, donors must invest in and insist on coordination across the various funding streams. As noted above, humanitarian coordination is fairly effective, and it provides an example of the kinds of effort and resources that need to be coordinated. It is inadequate for donor staff to simply exhort implementers, who compete for donor funding, to "cooperate" and "coordinate." First, the relationship between these implementers is to a degree competitive, and this must be recognized and addressed accordingly. Second, even with good will — and there is good will, in large part — coordination is labor intensive. Someone has to arrange platforms, take minutes, follow up on taskers, collect and collate data, and write reports. The excessive funding requirements for humanitarian coordination included in the annual appeal is outlandish and unnecessary, but the opposite situation — having to coordinate other funding streams and those streams with the humanitarian with no resources whatsoever — is a guarantee that we will continue to make mistakes and fuel the conflict.
The international community must agree on some kind of strategic approach to Syria and then operate within the parameters of that approach. It is critical that, in agreeing to this approach, the leadership and views of Syrians be meaningfully incorporated. External solutions, absent Syrian views, are likely to be stillborn. Naturally, as long as different countries are interfacing with the Syria crisis, each is going to assess its response in the light of its particular interests. However, that does not preclude the formulating of a more consultative and coordinated approach. The starts and stops of the Vienna talks should not be allowed to discourage the international community from attempting to address the conflict in even a semi-coherent manner. On the margin of more routine and insistent talks in this framework, an assistance working group should be established that brings in those who have oversight, at all levels, on assistance flows to Syria. This group should be supported with adequate resources to conduct the detail work necessary to truly understand who is doing what where, and to begin the task of rationalizing it.
The international community has long bemoaned the fact that the opposition is divided and incoherent. Fair enough. The opposition has these shortcomings and for good historic reasons, and also thanks to the behavior and funding patterns of the international community. But this is no excuse for having allowed the conflict to fester and grow as it has, now threatening the entire region and beyond, not to mention posing a moral reproach in terms of the duty to protect, the rules of war and international humanitarian and human-rights law. Funders, under the rubric of a strategic approach, must consolidate around one military council with an associated political body. Bluntly, starving the scattered little groups of their tidbits of funding can force the groups to consolidate. They have proven they will, for the most part, go where the funding is and, to a degree, reflect the positions of their donors. The history of JAN/JFS is an example of how successful this can be. Recall that many fighters abandoned the FSA and other groups to join JAN/JFS, not because they were ideologically persuaded, but simply because that is where the jobs were. The continued support of the rival-team approach is, literally, killing Syrians.
The international community will have to take calculated risks. Instead of waiting for the perfect Syrian partner, a partner that doesn't exist and is less likely to exist every day that the current situation continues, an evaluation of who is powerful and with whom business can be done should be immediately undertaken, but with less focus on trying to find individuals and groups that are able to contort themselves into a shape that is determined to be "moderate." Pragmatism is required. There should be insistence upon and investment in assuring civilian involvement. Syrian civilians are the victims of the conflict, but their voices are rarely solicited except to determine whether they prefer jam or halaweh in their food baskets and to count Facebook page "likes." Not only is civilian participation a critical requisite for any sustainable peace in Syria. It also recognizes in a practical manner that Syrian society is still in many ways intact and that there are no barriers between armed groups and communities. The men of those armed groups are the brothers, sons and husbands of Syrian civilians. The two groups are symbiotic and influence each other profoundly. In addition, more concerted effort towards civilian inclusion will help to disempower the small class of warlords and middle men who, in their own way, feed the conflict.
Any serious process that organizes opposition around a more unified political and military representation is going to be difficult, requiring resolve, patience and investment. It is not, however, impossible.
And what if we don't do this? If the international community is unable or unwilling to strategize, coordinate and then bring pressure on Syrian actors, the conflict is likely to continue. Armed groups will gravitate to those likely to fund them, including extremists. The Kurdish-Arab dispute will grow. The flames of regional Sunni-Shia tension will continue to be fanned. Average Syrians denied justice or any explanation of their plight will abandon faith in the international community and its alleged "norms." Radicalism will be nourished, and we will reap the whirlwind.
1 Human Rights Watch, A Wasted Decade: Human Rights in Syria during Bashar al-Asad's First Ten Years in Power (New York: Human Rights Watch, July 2010), https://www.hrw.org/report/2010/07/16/wasted-decade/human-rights-syria-….
2 Heritage Foundation, Index of Economic Freedom: Syria. 2016 (The Heritage Foundation 2016); and Phillip Inman, "Bashar Al-Assad Has Amassed Fortune of Up to £950m, Analysts Estimate," The Guardian, July 19, 2012.
3 Francesco Femia and Caitlin Werrell, Syria: Climate Change, Drought, and Social Unrest (Washington, D.C: The Center for Climate and Security, February 29, 2012), https://climateandsecurity.org/2012/02/29/syria-climate-change-drought-….
4 United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Syria, http://www.unocha.org/syria.
5 Adam Taylor, "The Syrian War's Death Toll Is Absolutely Staggering. But No One Can Agree on the Number," Washington Post, March 15, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/03/15/the-syrian….
6 Ian Black, "Report on Syria Conflict Finds 11.5% of Population Killed or İnjured," The Guardian, February 11, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/feb/11/report-on-syria-conflict-….
7 Jeanne Gobat and Kristina Kostial, Syria's Conflict Economy, IMF Working Paper WP/16/123 (The International Monetary Fund, June 2016).
8 For a superb explanation of who the Syrian Alawites are, see Fouad Ajami, The Syrian Rebellion (Hoover Institution Press, 2015), chapter 2: "Come the Mountain People."
9 Interview with Syrian opposition activist, December 2016. Names and other identifying information of individuals interviewed are withheld for protection reasons.
10 Interview with Syrian opposition activist associated with Ahrar ash-Sham, November 2016.
11 Key informant interviews.
12 Interview with Syrian analyst, November 2016.
13 Interview with Syrian analyst, November 2016.
14 Abdel Bari Atwan, Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate (Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2015), 141.
15 Todd Wood, "U.S. Believes Russia Purposefully Bombed Secret U.S. Base in Syria to Force Washington's Hand," Washington Times, July 23, 2016, http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2016/jul/23/us-believes-russia-purp…; and Jeff Dyer, "Pentagon Warns Syria on Air Strikes near Its Forces," Financial Times, August 20,2016, https://www.ft.com/content/c0dda1cc-664f-11e6-8310-ecf0bddad227.
16 The Global Coalition against ISIL (Islamic State in the Levant aka ISIS aka IS) is comprised of 68 member states, mostly from the global north and G20 countries, and focuses heavily on military operations against ISIS. The same countries, as part of that campaign or associated with it, provide funding to selected armed groups deemed to be moderate or to have parallel agendas, http://theglobalcoalition.org/partners/.
17 Interviews with Syrian Kurdish activists, December 2016.
18 Gönül Tol and Feyza Gumusluoglu, Turkey's Choices: Muslim Brotherhood or Regional Isolation (The Middle East Institute, May 2, 2016), http://www.mei.edu/content/article/turkey%E2%80%99s-choices-muslim-brot….
19 Matti Moosa, Extremist Shiites: The Ghulat Sects (Syracuse University Press, 1987); and Fouad Ajami, The Syrian Rebellion.
20 See Charles R. Lister, The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency (Oxford University Press, 2016).
21 Interviews with Kurdish activists, November and December 2016.
22 Interview with Syrian analyst with strong ties to the Kurdish and other minority communities, December 2016.
23 Key informant interviews.
26 Authors' direct experience and interaction with donors, 2012-2016.
28 Max Kravitz and Will Nichols, "A Bitter Pill to Swallow: Connections between Captagon, Syria, and the Gulf," Journal of International Affairs, Columbia University School for International and Public Affairs, May 18, 2016, https://jia.sipa.columbia.edu/bitter-pill-swallow-connections-captagon-….
29 United States Department of State, 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report: Syria Country Narrative, https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/243561.pdf.
30 Matt Herbert, "Partisans, Profiteers, and Criminals: Syria's Illicit Economy," The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs 38:1 (Winter 2014), https://static1.squarespace.com/static/579fc2ad725e253a86230610/t/57ec7….
31 European Parliament, Policy Department, Directorate General for External Policies. Trafficking in Human Organs (Brussels: The European Parliament, July 2015) 15, http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2015/549055/EXPO_STU(…; and Ben Norton, "Selling Desperate Syrian Refugees' Body Parts for Profit: Israeli Man Arrested in Turkey for Organ Trafficking," Salon, December 5, 2015, http://www.salon.com/2015/12/05/selling_desperate_syrian_refugees_body_….
32 Asher Berman, "Criminalization of the Syrian Conflict," The Small Wars Journal (May 16, 2012), http://www.understandingwar.org/article/criminalization-syrian-conflict; and Misha Glenny, "The Refugee Crisis Has Produced One Winner: Organized Crime," New York Times, September 20, 2015.http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/21/opinion/the-refugee-crisis-has-produc…; and interview with Syrian analyst, November 2016.
33 Interview with Syrian analyst, November 2016.
34 United States Department of State, Congressional Budget Justification, Fiscal Year 2016 193, https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/238222.pdf.
35 Interview with a Syrian analyst, December 2016. Also see, Stanford University, Mapping Militant Organizations, Ahrar Al Sham (Stanford University Press, October 23, 2016), http://web.stanford.edu/group/mappingmilitants/cgi-bin/groups/view/523.
36 Key informant interview, January 2017.
37 Friends of Syria is an international diplomatic collective of countries and bodies convening periodically on the topic of Syria outside the UN Security Council. The collective was created in response to a Russian and Chinese veto on a Security Council resolution condemning Syria in 2012.
38 Kareem Shaheen, "UN Accused of Taking Sides in Syrian Conflict," The Guardian, June 16, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jun/16/un-accused-taking-sides-i….
39 See Ben Taub, "Aleppo's 'Evacuation' Is a Crime against Humanity," The New Yorker, December 22, 2016, http://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/aleppos-evacuation-is-a-cri…; United Nations Human Rights Council, Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic (United Nations Human Rights Council Thirty-first Session, February 2016); and ibid, August 2014, http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/CoISyria/A-HRC-31-68….