Kuwait: the crisis in Syria comes home

With a broad spectrum of Sunnis in Kuwait expressing sympathy for the Islamic State and the country serving as a hub for private donors backing the group few countries are more concerned by the rise of the Islamic State.

The rise of the so-called Islamic State (IS) has shaken the Middle East, and few countries are more at risk – or more concerned – than Kuwait. In a country whose security has often been upended by Iraq, Kuwait’s government was alarmed by the ease with which the IS militants captured territory from the Iraqi army. But the authorities’ more immediate concern is closer to home: a broad spectrum of Sunnis in Kuwait have expressed sympathy for IS. Kuwait has already served as a hub for private donors seeking to fund Syrian Salafist rebel groups such as Ahrar al-Sham, as well as the al-Qaeda branch, Jabhat al-Nusra. IS’s success risks fragmenting those donors and potentially sparking an internal conflict within Kuwait’s Sunni religious establishment. Kuwait’s Shias fear that they will become one of the victims of this dynamic and are already sounding alarm bells about growing sectarian tensions.

Adding to the authorities’ difficulties, Kuwaitis across sectarian lines have criticised the idea of a US-led coalition to stop IS – but Kuwait’s government has signed onto the coalition. Many Kuwaitis view IS as a result of the United States’ policies toward the Syrian conflict, if not as a direct creation of the US. Any effort to target the group without deposing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will be unacceptable to many Sunnis. But military action against IS is also unacceptable to many Shias, who suspect that the US has broader designs for the region. Amid all of this, Kuwait is under increasing international pressure to crack down on terrorist financing, and any effort to do so will inevitably come at the expense of its cherished freedoms of association and speech. Needless to say, in the coming months the government will have to deploy its considerable experience in balancing constituencies to maintain an already delicate political balance.

Kuwait’s involvement in the Syrian-Iraqi crisis began in late 2011 and early 2012. Kuwait City joined fellow Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries in expelling its Syrian ambassador, but the government was reluctant to follow the leads of Qatar and Saudi Arabia by directly supporting opposition groups in Syria. A small group of individuals, however, did get involved. Groups from within the estimated 120,000 Syrian expatriates in Kuwait paired up with powerful political and religious figures within the Sunni community and began to send money and supplies. In what was originally a peaceful uprising, donors sent start-up funds for armed brigades specifically linked to their own ideologies or goals. As the rebels coalesced into larger groups, donors likewise consolidated their efforts. They operated with ease, thanks to Kuwait’s rich tradition of charity work as well as its freedom of association. In 2011, Kuwait was also the only country in the GCC that did not criminalise terrorist finance, making it a hub not just for locals but also for citizens from across the Gulf to send donations to Syrian rebel groups.

The Sunni donor community in Kuwait is dominated by activist Salafists, who have particularly rallied around Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra. These donors have not only encouraged the groups’ armed activities, but have also contributed to fortifying their jihadist and sectarian ideologies. So connected were the Kuwaitis to Ahrar al-Sham that when its leader, Hassan Aboud, died on 9 September 2014, the Salafist Umma party issued an official statement mourning his death. The leader of Umma, Hakim al-Mutairi, as well as one of its prominent fundraisers, Hajjaj al-Ajmi, posted the final messages they had received from Aboud on Twitter. (Ajmi was one of two Kuwaitis who were designated for sanctions over terrorist financing by the US Department of the Treasury in August last year.)

Kuwait’s donors were overwhelmingly opposed to IS’s role in the Syrian conflict. Many of them echoed the popular Syrian belief that IS was created by the Assad regime. When the internal rift between IS and its parent organisation al-Qaeda emerged, some Kuwaiti donors tried to mediate between the two sides and council IS back towards al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri. When their work failed, they denounced IS as takfiri.

But just a few months later, IS’s success across the border in Iraq met with a very different reception. The majority of donors welcomed its takeover there as a “revolution”. Whereas IS is seen as having divided the Sunni opposition in Syria, the group is seen as a champion of the Sunnis in Iraq who were persecuted under the government of Nouri al-Maliki. The same donors have also denounced the US strikes against IS, particularly because they have targeted al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra as well – a group backed by numerous Kuwaiti funding networks.

The resulting disconnect, whereby donors support IS in Iraq but not in Syria, paired with US military action, now risks splitting the donor community by causing some Kuwaiti Sunnis to back IS, rather than Jabhat al-Nusra or Ahrar al-Sham. This is just one chapter in a broader regional battle between al-Qaeda and IS for support. The greatest risk is that donors on both sides will attempt to prove their dominance by accelerating their efforts to fund and provide ideological support to the groups they favour.

In addition to the immediate risks of radicalisation, these processes could destabilise Kuwait’s internal political situation. It was no coincidence that the Salafist and Islamist communities’ funding of the Syrian conflict coincided with their meteoric political rise at home in Kuwait. The regional precedent of Sunni empowerment and revolution invigorated these networks, inspiring mass protests in 2011-2012 that drew tens of thousands of Kuwaitis to demand a more democratic government. The authorities were visibly shaken by the demonstrations and donors leveraged that unease to deter the government from interfering in fundraising events and gatherings. If the Sunni donor community is once again electrified by events abroad, it could make another push to take control at home.

Such a push would exacerbate the rift between the ruling family and the broader Sunni community, including the vast majority of Kuwait’s Sunnis who are not involved in any funding operations. Over the last four years, Sunni and tribal opposition leaders have complained of official corruption and of the ruling family’s perceived bias towards wealthy merchant families, many of whom are Shia. The examples of Shia-led persecution of Sunnis in Syria and now in Iraq have brought new attention to those longstanding grievances. And almost four years after the mass protests, the opposition is now far more organised and capable.

The Shia community, for its part, also feels under siege – not from the government, but from events in the region. Many supported the Shia-led opposition in Bahrain and grievances about its treatment are still fresh. Kuwait’s Shias see a tidal wave moving against them across the Arab Gulf monarchies. Of course, some Shia politicians are also capitalising on the events in Iraq. Pro-Iranian MPs, some of whom are close to the Syrian regime, have cited IS as evidence that the Assad government has in fact been fighting terrorists all along. They are deploying their sharp anti-IS rhetoric to boost their own anti-terrorism credentials while decrying fellow Gulf states for supporting the Syrian opposition.

But neither side of the sectarian rift has been enthusiastic about the international coalition that aims to stop IS. Kuwaitis have been broadly appalled by the Assad government’s behaviour and they find it morally abhorrent for the US to strike IS without also tackling the Syrian issue – particularly given that Washington threatened air strikes in 2013 and then backed down. Many believe that the US has its own interests in mind rather than those of the local people. Even those who would like to support US military action are sceptical that Barack Obama’s administration is committed to seeing the effort through, given his famous reluctance about involvement in the region. Finally, Shia supporters of Iran and Hezbollah fear that the attacks on IS are simply another iteration of American imperialism.

The government now has the unenviable task of managing popular opinion while still meeting international expectations. It has joined the international coalition against IS, and as part of the alliance, American forces will likely ask to use their Kuwaiti military base in the anti-IS operation.

Kuwait will also face increasing pressure from the US Treasury to crack down on terrorism financing, and there are signs it is taking steps to do so. Over the summer, Kuwait’s first independent Financial Intelligence Unit began operations, tasked with flagging and referring to prosecution any suspicious laundering or terrorist finance activity. Several individuals have also been barred from travelling and most visible fundraising has been halted. It is likely, however, that funds continue to move quietly.

Still, in the short term, domestic political stability may be the priority, which could explain why Kuwait has not participated directly in military strikes. While Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates have sent planes to join the bombardments in Iraq and Syria, Kuwait has hinted that it may take on a less politically provocative humanitarian role, as it has in Syria, by organising and rallying international donors to the United Nations’ relief effort. Kuwait has been equally non-committal on the issue of Iran’s participation in the coalition. Kuwait’s foreign minister said he was willing to talk with Tehran about regional issues but quickly shot down any suggestion that his country would mediate between Iran and members of the coalition against IS.

In the long term, the persistence of radical donor networks is a risk not only to Kuwait but to the broader region. These communities are deeply connected and their ideologies are persistent. And with each political event that reaffirms their convictions, they become more difficult to break. 

Elizabeth Dickinson is a Gulf-based journalist and Middle East editor at Monitor Global Outlook

This piece is one of a series of 14 looking at the regional dimensions of the IS crisis

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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