Compassion, politics and violence entangled in Syrian aid
Amman, JORDAN — In a first-floor room of the sunny, spacious rehabilitation center, Mustafa Kasran is doubled up in pain as a nurse rubs his motionless legs. A bullet in his back has rendered him paralyzed. More in his left elbow, now covered with purple scars, have left him only the use of his right arm.
Above his bed hangs an enormous Syrian flag emblazoned in English and Arabic with the word “Freedom.”
His family is still in Syria, where reports of brutality on both sides of the civil war between rebels and forces loyal to President Bashar Assad pour out daily. But he said he doesn’t want them to come join him in Jordan.
“I wish to go to them, not for them to come to me,” he said.
This rehabilitation center is funded by donors in oil-rich Saudi Arabia, a Gulf state that has in the past sympathized with hardline Sunni militias such as those fighting Assad.
Syria has largely split along sectarian lines, with the majority Sunni fighting Assad’s forces. According to a Jane’s Defence report released on Sept. 16, about half of the rebels are aligned with recognized terrorist groups like al-Qaida or other hardline Islamist organizations that have become the dominant opposition force on the battlefields in recent months.
Most of the Saudi Arabian government’s aid for Syrians, like that of other oil-rich Sunni Gulf states, goes through U.N. channels. But Gulf governments may be turning a blind eye to their private citizens who send arms and money to the battlefield, as well as providing direct aid for Syrian refugees, thus blurring the line between humanitarian aid and support for the rebels.
Kasran was only 20 years old when he participated in demonstrations against Assad in Aleppo, one of the hardest-hit cities in Syria’s blood-soaked civil war and was shot.
After he was hit, one of his friends carried him to the local hospital. Then began his long journey to this hilltop sanctuary. First he was smuggled over the border into Jordan by FSA partisans, where Jordanian troops took over and transferred him to an urgent care facility in Zaatari refugee camp, which is hosted by Jordan. Then he was transferred to a hospital in Amman, and finally to the rehabilitation center.
The rehabilitation center is perched among rolling red hills and olive groves on the outskirts of Amman. The location was selected, according to Najib al Hariri, a Syrian who runs this center, in part to signal to patients that they’re safe now and will be well taken care of.
The center can afford the location, as well as the gym equipment patients use for physical therapy, because of its deep-pocketed donors.
The Saudi state, a longtime American ally, is one of the most fundamentalist Islamic Sunni countries in the world.
The government in Riyadh seems to view Syria as a proxy fight between Sunni potential allies and its rival, Iran’s Shia regime. Iran has long been close to Assad, even though his regime is secular, said Yezid Sayigh, an analyst at the Carnegie Middle East Center.
“Private donors have no qualms about supporting extreme elements of the opposition,” said Valerie Szybala with the Institute for the Study of War. The Institute has been examining the slick and well branded fundraising campaigns popping up in wealthy parts of the Arab world. Some of the drives are for humanitarian relief, but, she added, “some are just very overtly supporting the jihadis.”
In some ways, the situation harkens back to Afghanistan in the 1980s, when rebels there fought against an authoritarian, secular regime. At that time, too, Saudi Arabia used its riches to feed various fundamentalist groups with arms and humanitarian support. Americans were also among those who took up the mantle of the “freedom fighters,” many of whom were hardline Sunni Muslims.
According to Stromberg, 99 percent of the Syrian refugees in Jordan are Sunnis.
'The wrong kind of dynamics'
Syrian rebels also helped Amnah Sawya and her family cross the border into Jordan with the nine people in her family. She said they have friends in the rebel forces, as well.
Sawya and her family are staying in a camp funded and run by the United Arab Emirates Red Crescent Society.
UAE is, like Saudi Arabia, an overwhelmingly Sunni country made wealthy by oil.
The Emirates Jordanian Camp is reserved for large families, especially those with a disabled member. These are selected by the International Organization for Migration after the UAE Red Crescent tells them what kind of people it wants in the camp. The services there are of such a high caliber that some Jordanians call it the “five-star camp.”
Whereas the 100,000 refugees in Zaatari stay in a maze of tents and metal trailers, the UAE camp consists of row after row of small, neat containers that serve as rooms for its 5,000 residents. Sawya’s container is crowded, but has faux-wood paneling and a small electric fan that keeps the heat under control. It’s rare for refugee camps to supply electricity for residents.
UAE Red Crescent employees show off high-quality food the camp purchased from Turkey. Employees prepare and package food for camp residents, who are given three meals daily. Children crowd outside the school, and girls trail a young female counselor, Enas Salim, walking through the yard.
Schools exist in Zaatari, but parents complain about their quality, and kids are more often seen horsing around and smoking cigarettes during the day than sitting in classrooms.
Paul Stromberg, head of operations in Jordan for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said the Gulf states in particular have been generous to the Syrian refugees, with a focus on direct aid, like blankets and food. Kuwait, an oil-rich Gulf country that is about 70 percent Sunni, has donated $112 million, according to official UNHCR statistics.
While the aid is welcome in Jordan, and other countries struggling to cope with the massive influx of refugees from Syria, analysts say the support Gulf state donors give to factions fighting in Syria’s civil war could have destabilizing consequences for the region.
Sayigh warned the way the Gulf states fund their favorites now could have disastrous effects reminiscent of the civil war that followed Afghanistan’s Soviet occupation.
“They think it’s a matter of giving [rebels] money and guns,” Sayigh said. “they’re again creating the wrong kind of dynamics.”
Mazen al Tamimi contributed to this report.