The presence of an Al Qaeda-linked group among Syria's rebels and past US prosecutions of those who've supported groups it deems terrorists has slowed the flow of food and medical aid to Syria.
Members of Abu Sayeed’s grassroots aid group were en route to the Turkish border to pick up a shipment of food when the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra announced that his group was loyal to Al Qaeda.
Immediately the Gulf donors who’d sent the food withdrew their support.
Mr. Sayeed says his organization has no ties to Jabhat al-Nusra or any group on either side of the conflict. However the presence of Al Qaeda-linked fighters among the Syrian rebels has scared off a number of donors, unwilling to risk inadvertently supporting the group and suffering repercussions, like financial sanctions from the US.
“There are so many Islamic organizations that stopped supporting us after Nusra’s statement,” he says, adding that he’s sent representatives to reassure donors and get support flowing once more. “They were worried about getting blacklisted.”
Syria's civil war has claimed well in excess of 70,000 lives and dislocated millions. The need for aid has far outpaced the international response. Local aid workers say that Jabhat al-Nusra’s announcement has rattled donors who worry they could be accused of supporting terrorism if they spend money inside Syria.
For charities in the Middle East, this is not a solely theoretical concern. In 2007 the Holy Land Foundation, then the largest Islamic charity in the United States, was charged and eventually convicted of supporting Hamas. Some members of the charity received prison sentences of up to 65 years for, what they said, was purely humanitarian support sent to Gaza.
In an official statement after the sentencing hearing, David Kris, US assistant attorney general for national security at the time said, “These sentences should serve as a strong warning to anyone who knowingly provides financial support to terrorists under the guise of humanitarian relief.”
Donors and others involved in Syrian relief efforts appear to remember that message. Potential funders began edging away from Syria as early as December, when the US designated Jabhat al-Nusra as a terrorist organization.
“It’s been a big issue,” says Mazen Asbahi, chairman of the Syrian Support Group, the only US-based NGO given a license to directly support the Free Syrian Army. “The designation of Jabhat al-Nusra had an impact on donors generally. However, with recent US support directly to the Free Syrian Army, our hope at the Syrian Support Group is that donors will feel more comfortable in supporting moderate actors in Syria.”
Jabhat al-Nusra's announcement may also have an effect on opposition fighters facing major weapons and ammunition shortages. Rebel groups have long called on the United States and other western countries to provide them with significant assistance, with little response. The announcement now makes support less likely.
“From my perspective we weren’t getting any supplies. It’s been zero help. All we’ve got so far is promises, so the announcement won’t make any difference,” says Abu Mudar, a former colonel in the government army now fighting alongside the opposition. “Of course, if anyone had been thinking about supplying us with weapons, they won’t now.”
Despite mounting concerns among Western politicians about Jabhat al-Nusra and other conservative Islamist groups on the frontlines of the Syrian civil war, a number of locals say that the level of attention far outweighs the actual issue.
By most estimates, jihadists now account for about one-fifth of Syrian opposition forces. Jabhat al-Nusra is said to have 10,000 fighters at most – reportedly among the opposition's most effective and best-funded.
“Jabhat al-Nusra is a very small group compared to the rest of the Free Syrian Army,” says Abu Mujahid, deputy commander of an opposition unit in Aleppo.
A number of opposition fighters say that despite the group's hardline politics, many Syrians are attracted to it merely for its resources and hold much more moderate beliefs than the group’s official party line. Additionally, opposition members report that there has been much internal debate among Syrians in Jabhat al-Nusra about their leader’s, Abu Mohammed al-Jawalani, statement declaring allegiance to Al Qaeda.
Aid groups say that the announcement has thus far only affected small, independent donors, while major international and governmental organizations have long planned aid distribution around the existence of groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra.
Syrian aid groups say that if independent donors continue to cut funding, they will reduce the capabilities of grassroots aid efforts, creating more opportunities for Jabhat al-Nusra – one of the few groups capable of providing assistance – to gain support.
“If other groups stop sending aid it will not affect Nusra, because it is one of the richest groups in Syria,” says Abu Marwan, who runs a grassroots aid effort in Syria. His group's funding was unaffected by the announcement because its funding comes from inside the country.
“Poor people only care about helping their families with food. They don’t care if it comes from Al Qaeda or Israel. If the international organizations stop helping us because of Jabhat al-Nusra, Jabhat al-Nusra will be the one who benefits by getting more supporters inside Syria.”