World

Godfathers and thieves, Part Four: How the Syrian revolution was crowdfunded

By Elizabeth Dickinson 17 September 2015

This is the fourth of five exclusive extracts relating the story of Mezyan Al Barazi, a Syrian expatriate living and working in the United Arab Emirates, and his efforts to support the revolution in his home country. At turns informative, tragic, and edge-of-your-seat suspenseful, Godfathers and Thieves reminds us that the next revolution, like the last, will likely be crowdfunded. By ELIZABETH DICKINSON.

One brisk Thursday evening, Mezyan Al Barazi, a 63-year-old Syrian businessman, slipped into a side entrance of Abu Dhabi’s Le Meridien hotel. The hotel was well past its prime, a run-down landmark on the farthest edge of the city. But the place was nevertheless packed with men in suits and women with perfectly flat-ironed hair, teased into busy up-dos. The gathering had been meant to start at 8pm, but the Syrians – who as a rule are tardy – had arrived early, sweeping into the grandly named Versailles Hall banquet room with a sense of anticipation.

Al Barazi greeted the head of every family with a handshake and a smile, if not a hug and a kiss. After half an hour of making the rounds, he found his chair, leaned back and exhaled with satisfaction. Along with his suit, the Free Syria sash he wore around his neck gave him a regal, imposing air. As he eyed the room, a young Syrian girl weaved through the tables with a basket of roses, giving one to each woman.

Attendees filed towards the buffet as a brawny Christian man with a three-day beard took to the stage to play Syrian favourites on his lute. Someone cued the Syrian national anthem. Al Barazi stood, reared his head high, and surrounded by his people, began to sing. Over the next four hours, Abu Dhabi’s Syrians raised 10,000Dh ($2,700) to send back home.

By the summer of 2011, fundraising events like this became integral to the work of the diaspora. The exiles had planned to keep their compatriots inside the country supplied for a few months, perhaps a year, before pressure from the rest of the world wore down President Bashir al-Assad. But the months kept passing, and the expenses grew. To raise money, the Syrians started to self-tax their social lives. Instead of just gathering for tea or lunch, they turned every occasion into a charity benefit. First in peoples’ homes and then in banquet halls and public parks, the expatriates imposed fees for showing up: 150Dh ($40) per person attending the dinner, for example, with a hat passed around afterwards for more.

Increasingly emboldened, Al Barazi’s Abu Dhabi group began placing ads in the local newspapers, lamenting Syria’s plight and providing a generic e-mail address for anyone interested in helping out. Through fundraising and donations the organising committee, or Tansiqiya, managed to cobble together a monthly budget of about $400,000, with Al Barazi himself contributing about $1,000 a month.

When not raising money, the expatriates spent it. They stockpiled blankets and winter coats and all manner of food stuff in their garages and living rooms. The diaspora organising committee simply plugged their shipments into established merchant networks, and added them to existing orders, such as crates of electronics from factories in East Asia. Traders have moved from the Gulf to the Mediterranean and back for centuries, and as recently as 2009 Syria accounted for about one out of every $5 traded with the six Gulf countries. What were a few more boxes of cellphones, clothing, or food?

Diaspora groups like Al Barazi’s quickly proved able to deliver aid to areas that even the largest international organisations struggled to reach. Between 2011 and mid-2014, the United Nations (UN) was legally required to work with the Syrian government through the government-run Syrian Red Crescent in areas designated by the authorities. As a result, many neighborhoods held by the opposition remained without official aid for years. To be sure, there were areas that the diaspora couldn’t get to either, but their networks of contacts and facilitators were far superior to any official agencies’. It could take the UN weeks to establish how many people lived in a village and to figure out what they needed, for example. An exiled Syrian originally from that same village could have that information in hours over WhatsApp.

But by the end of 2011, Al Barazi and his friends were facing a dilemma. New types of requests had begun to arrive from inside Syria. The international condemnation had been unable to stop the Syrian government’s brutal crackdowns. Abu Akhram – a member of Al Barazi’s group – remembers it this way: “Instead of cameras, the activists started asking for guns.”

Al Barazi’s Tansiqiya was divided over whether to provide the fighters with weapons and ammunition. From the safety of cafes and apartments, they weighed their unease with the insecurity of their families back home. It was becoming clear that the protest movement they’d been funding from Abu Dhabi was metastasising into a civil war. The regime would continue to crack down. The demonstrators wouldn’t give up. Weapons would be relatively easy to procure. On Syria’s eastern border, Iraq was struggling to emerge from a decade of conflict. The country was awash with light arms and middlemen willing to traffic them.

The Abu Dhabi Tansiqiya ultimately decided the war wasn’t theirs to win – or support. The reason was twofold, remembers Al Barazi. “First, we have to help civilians because they are the revolution,” he says. Without them, there was nothing to fight for. But even more importantly was the worry that the fires of military engagement, once ignited, would rage out of control. “No matter what you send,” he argued, “it is never enough.” There is always more fighting to be done.

But even as Al Barazi and his friends focused their attention on civilian needs, the networks they formed put them in a position to witness the rush of money following the fighters. Shortly, they began to hear about colleagues and friends in the region helping the Free Syrian Army – an umbrella name adopted by early rebel groups – or other bands of armed men. Businessmen in Dubai will help us, newly-formed brigade members told them during phone calls, excitedly recounting grandiose promises. Many of the fighters were family and friends.

As the Syrian government escalated its campaign of violence, people in the diaspora found it difficult not to support the rebels, at least morally. And there were plenty of ways to help without buying bullets. Weapons and ammunition were becoming increasingly available within the country, but supplies like flour, sugar, and cigarettes were just as valuable to undernourished fighters.

Indeed, while the Tansiqiya elected not to fund the fighting as a group, its individual members were left to consult their consciences. “If you want to help, do it privately,” was how Al Barazi put it. He himself would elect to do so only once. A rag-tag brigade of young, neighborhood men, including some of his relatives, wore him down with daily requests. Rumors were swirling that Assad was about to deploy chemical weapons. “We need masks, just masks,” they pleaded during phone calls and in WhatsApp messages. Al Barazi found a place to procure the masks and organised the shipment. Everything, he says, was paid from his pocket.

If anything, the rise of armed opposition within the country increased the flow of funds from a barrage of sources into the Syrian conflict. In 2012, a Syrian sugar magnate named Firas Tlass – believed to be the second-richest man in Syria – fled the country. In an interview in The Telegraph later that year, he said he would devote his fortune to funding the opposition, including the Free Syrian Army.

Many in the diaspora had personal reasons for funding the rebels striking back at the Assad regime. In 1982, Hafez al-Assad deployed helicopters, soldiers, and artillery to crush an uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama, killing some 30,000 people. Many of the survivors fled to Saudi Arabia or Qatar and had been nurturing their hatred for decades.

Governments got involved as well. Qatar’s intelligence services were searching for ways to fund rebels, but lacking the networks to do so, they turned to Syrian businessmen – including exiles sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood – who promised they had the connections needed to rally money and arms. In July 2012, Qatar sponsored the creation of the Syrian Business Forum, a coalition of opposition businessmen that promised to devote their fortunes, with Qatari support, to the rebels. Through these and other channels, the government would spend as much as $3-billion trying to unseat the Assad regime, according to a 2013 estimate by The Financial Times.

Meanwhile, in Kuwait, the conflict was increasingly being seen in sectarian terms, between the Assads – who belonged to the minority Alawite off-shoot of Shia Islam – and the broader Sunni majority. Sunni clerics and politicians began to openly fundraise for the rebels, gathering friends and neighbours in their large tea rooms to solicit funds and recruiting Syrian expatriates to help. Armed with lists of potential donors, the Syrian exiles went door to door making the case for funding the civil war. Once the money was secured, they used it to recruit fighters and provide them with weapons and supplies.

As money poured into Syria, it not only fuelled the conflict – it splintered the opposition into a multitude of small armed groups competing for funding. Al Barazi’s warning about violence creating the bottomless pit of need had become a reality – and it made the work he was doing more difficult still. As networks of middle men coalesced around the arms trade, they grew unwilling to carry other, less well-paying wares. As one of Al Barazi’s friends complained, by 2013 it had become “easier to deliver a gun inside Syria than medicine”. Rebels took the place of unarmed protesters, and the impetus behind Al Barazi’s Tansiqiya began to fade. “The move to arms relegated us – it made us unimportant,” says Abu Akhram. “We realised by late 2012 that, as a civic group, we were being left behind.” DM

Read Part One here.

Read Part Two here.

Read Part three here.

Godfathers and Thieves is published by Deca. Download the full story here.

Elizabeth Dickinson is a Gulf-based American journalist whose writing has appeared in The New YorkerForeign PolicyThe EconomistThe Christian Science Monitor, and The National, among other publications. She is the author of the Kindle SingleWho Shot Ahmed, an account of a young videographer shot in cold blood at the height of Bahrain’s Arab Spring. She is also co-editor of the recent book The Southern Tiger, a narrative memoir by Chilean President Ricardo Lagos. She has reported from five continents and speaks French, Spanish, and Krio (Sierra Leone), as well as basic Yoruba and Arabic.

ABOUT DECA

Launched in June 2014, Deca is a journalism cooperative that creates long-form stories about the world to read on mobile devices. The group’s members have authored acclaimed books and published magazine articles in such outlets as Harper’s, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, GQ, National Geographic, and The New York Times Magazine. Deca’s writers include Pulitzer Prize, National Magazine Award, Livingston Award, Kurt Schork Award, George Polk Award, Michael Kelly Award, and Frontline Club winners and finalists. Learn more at www.decastories.com.

Photo: Two children playing on a swing in the small town of Maaloula, Syria, 20 December 2014. EPA/YOUSSEF BADAWI

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