When Canadian Foreign Affairs Minster John Baird announced on March 31 that Canada would be donating an additional $13 million to help Syrian refugees, he was clear on one point: the money would be funnelled through the Jordanian government. The added funds increased Canada’s contribution to Jordan to $24.5 million dollars, half of all the money Canada has pledged so far to ease Syria’s growing humanitarian crisis.
The choice of Jordan was no accident. With the level of chaos currently playing out in Syria, having a trusted partner to ensure the legitimate distribution of aid has become one of the most pressing concerns of the international community.
Already, the signs are worrying. If there is one thing that is not in short supply in Syria, it is greed. Even as bombs fall in Aleppo and rebels tighten their grip on the capital, Damascus, armed groups, of which there are now hundreds, are eyeing the international aid industry for the money to support their cause.
“It’s a total mess,” says Bara’ al-Nasser, a doctor from Damascus, now the head of the Medical Relief for Syria clinic at the Bab al-Salam refugee camp, on the Turkish border 45 km north of Aleppo. “Syria is turning into another Afghanistan. When the Soviets invaded there, many countries sent money and weapons secretly and helped create different armed groups. The same thing is happening in Syria. Money that was intended for aid is being used to buy weapons. We have so many militias controlling different refugee camps. They decide what to do with the supplies coming in, and it is not always to help the Syrian people.”
Nasser describes one incident in which US$100,000 was given to a trusted member of the Syrian National Council (SNC), one of the political coalitions vying for legitimacy in a post-Bashar al-Assad Syria. “The money was intended for medical supplies but instead, this guy used it to create his own militia,” Nasser claims. “He was a trusted man, but there are a lot of trusted people who have now become thieves.”
The Bab al-Salam camp, where Nasser runs his clinic, is dominated by the Asefat al Shamal militia, which claims to be a member of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the largely secular, military wing of the revolution comprised of defectors from the Syrian army.
According to a report on the rise of Syria’s Islamists, however, published in March by the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, “the FSA name remains in use by a number of competing spokespersons and command structures that claim to represent the rebellion under that name. Each of these groups receives some level of foreign support and media attention, and they remain active as minor political figures, but none of them controls a serious military force inside Syria. The term ‘FSA’ does not refer to an organization. Instead, it is synonymous with expressions like ‘the resistance’ or ‘the freedom fighters.’ ” And the name itself has fallen into disrepute. At camps scattered over northern Syria, refugees tell stories of corruption and graft linked to groups using the FSA name. At Bab al-Salam, in particular, the Asefat al Shamal has a reputation for looking after its own interests first before taking care of the needs of refugees. Food supplies donated to the camp often end up being sold back to Turkish traders, camp residents say, or sold in the markets in Azaz, a Syrian town roughly five kilometres south of the camp.
“George Sabra was here,” says one camp resident, Ahmed Yasin, a 30-year-old refugee from Mayer, near Aleppo, referring to the president of the SNC. “He promised 5,000 Syrian pounds ($70) to every family. We received 250 ($3.50). What happened to the rest of that money?”
Other refugees tell Maclean’s the money was supposed to be distributed by Hussam Shamo, the head of the Free Red Crescent at Bab al-Salam but instead the bulk of it was turned over to the Asefat al Shamal.
Shamo denies this, claiming he distributed all of the money that was given to him. But his organization, which is not related to the broader Red Crescent Societies, fails the most basic tests of legitimacy: its office shows no signs of official activity—no filing systems or computers or documents showing records of their activities. Locals say it is a sham: Shamo was brought in by the Asefat al Shamal and set up the Free Red Crescent as a front for them.
“We need this organization,” Shamo insists. “The Syrian Red Crescent works for the regime. We work for Free Syria.”
But despite Shamo’s insistence, the few aid organizations operating at Bab al-Salam, including the Qatari Red Crescent and the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation—both Islamist in their ideologies—are steering clear of secular groups such as the Asefat al Shamal. Instead, they are funnelling their aid through religious groups, primarily Ahrar al-Sham, a Salafist organization that, according to the same Syrian report, heads the largest Islamist alliance in Syria—the Syrian Islamic Front.
Consequently, the Islamists, the ultra-orthodox Salafis, in particular, are winning over the local population. They provide food and clothing in Azaz and distribute cash to any family who has members fighting in the war. They mediate disputes and run schools, teaching primarily religious subjects using books donated by hardline Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia.
From Bab al-Salam in Aleppo province to Bab al-Hawa, 60 km to the southwest in Idlib, the Ahrar al-Sham is ever-present, meeting the basic needs of tens of thousands of refugees. Their distribution network is well-organized and appears to be free of corruption. And their hatred of the secularists is palpable.
“The Free Syrian Army? You mean the Free Syrian Mafia,” says Yousif Majd, the head of the Ahrar al-Sham in A’zaz. Majd, a Dutch-trained dentist who returned to Syria in July 2012 to run relief operations in the north, believes Western governments are falling into the same trap they’ve fallen into in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“They fear us,” he says. “They hear the word ‘Islam’ and they think we are all ‘terrorists.’ They refuse to help us because they don’t want to help ‘terrorists.’ But we are the ones winning this revolution. We are the ones helping the Syrian people. If they help us topple the regime, we will work with them. But if they invade Syria after the regime has fallen, to support these thieves and infidels in the SNC and FSA, then we will know that their real war is against Islam.”
Nasser, the doctor at the Bab al-Salam camp, warns of factional chaos resulting from the West’s allergy to Islamists. “Ahrar al-Sham are Muslims,” he says. “I am a Muslim. I don’t agree with their perspective on Islam but they have a role to play in Syrian politics. Syria will need different parties for our future democracy. But the international community wants to support one group, to create one party that will dominate Syria when the regime falls. This is impossible. Worse, all they are doing is helping to create factions that will never unite. The leaders of these factions all want power and prestige and they will fight each other for it.”
Already, the tension between groups runs deep. In Azaz, the Asefat al Shamal has tried to shut down Ahrar al-Sham schools, telling teachers they do not want al-Qaeda in their area. “But they can’t stop us,” says Majd.
What’s preventing an all-out collapse of the shaky alliance of anti-regime forces is partly the resilience of the regime itself, which remains a common enemy, and partly the hope that the international community will finally start to send significant financial support to the rebellion. “The money’s there,” says a representative from one international organization, requesting anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media. “But the legal mechanisms haven’t been put in place to disburse it. Right now, you have a lot of humanitarian organizations working under the table, so to speak. They are remote managing-relief operations, sending in supplies to people in Syria they think they can trust and then hoping for the best. Of course, that kind of system is wide open to corruption.”
Indeed, even the U.S., the largest humanitarian donor to Syria, has had to operate clandestinely. According to a Washington Post report, mistrust of the U.S. and the dangers of operating in Syria have forced aid distribution underground, leaving the political gains that come with aid delivery to Islamist groups like Ahrar al-Sham. And here is the crux of the problem facing international donors, including Canada: without a legitimate aid network in place, do you send money and supplies to corrupt and dysfunctional secularists, or to the well-organized and largely reliable networks of Salafist hard-liners? No easy decision.