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Kuwait, Political Violence and the Syrian War

20 Mar 2017
By Dr Kylie Baxter
Kuwaiti BM-30 Smerch rocket launchers Photo Credit: Angelique N. Smythe, US Air Force (Wikimedia Commons) Creative Commons

Kuwait is a member of the US-led coalition against Daesh and a leading contributor of humanitarian support to victims of the Syrian war. Yet the threats posed by Daesh and regional conflicts have exposed contradictions in Kuwaiti foreign policy and society, hitherto a model for managing sectarian tensions in the Arab world.

The 2015 bombing of the Imam Ja’far as-Sadiq Mosque, a Shia dominated place of worship in Kuwait City, killed 27 and wounded a further 227. The attack was positioned by Daesh’s central leadership as part of its broader anti-Shia agenda and specifically as a response to Kuwait’s role in the crusader coalition undertaking strikes against Daesh targets in Iraq and Syria.

The attack in Kuwait, alongside attacks in Paris, Lebanon and elsewhere, highlights the potential for Daesh-directed or inspired attacks across international borders. As such, Daesh’s agenda is much broader than its immediate environment of Syria and Iraq, and the organisation has sought to articulate a global agenda. The targeting of Kuwait, with its large Shia community and central role in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), can be viewed as an unsurprising development of this policy.

Kuwait’s political scene

Kuwait’s dominant Sunni Muslim identity, its endorsement of regional integration through the GCC and its close relationship with the US are central components of its international stance. In recent years the Arab uprisings created a new set of pressures upon Kuwait’s domestic and regional policies and those of the broader GCC. The lack of transparency, limited political and social freedoms, and the role of entrenched elites, which had in part triggered the unrest across the region, were abundantly present in the gulf.

Despite these shortcomings and challenges, Kuwait has established a tradition of sectarian coexistence and political inclusion and, as such, is a rarity in the Gulf community. The Shia have historically served as loyal subjects of the ruling al-Sabah family, supporting it against the domestic challenge of the Sunni merchant elite and their push for greater political power in the early to mid-20th century and into the contemporary period.

The preservation of stability was further helped by generous assistance packages from the elite, aimed at shoring up the social contract. By 2015 the regime’s comparative responsiveness to public pressure assisted Kuwait to escape the mass violence experienced elsewhere in the region, yet the impact of the transitions in Arab politics was inevitably felt. The Syrian crisis has filtered through Kuwait’s political life, with ramifications for international relationships, economic affairs, security policies and the interaction between formal and informal power structures within the state.

Kuwait and Syria

Kuwait’s antipathy for the Syrian regime was as firmly rooted in Damascus’ pro-Iranian agenda as it was in Assad’s repression of protesters. Kuwait, along with the other GCC states, viewed the conflict in Syria as an opportunity to strike a blow against Iranian influence in the region. As the conflict developed, Kuwait spoke out in support of the Syrian rebels, and by November 2012 was part of a GCC endorsement of the Syrian opposition.

By 2013 regional observers suggested that Kuwait’s private donors had funneled hundreds of millions of dollars into the conflict in Syria. These funds were destined for organisations supporting Sunni Syrians and groups willing to take up arms against Assad.

In Kuwait, the government passed a range of legislative measures in response to the changed regional situation. Kuwait’s legal response to the devastation of the Syrian crisis appears clear—support Syrian civilians, criminalise support for terrorist entities, limit the ability of such organisations to access funding streams and provide a clear matrix within the state to implement international agreements aimed at choking off support for militias operating in the Syrian arena. However, if these laws are not enforced, the credibility of this stance is obviously undermined.

Kuwaiti backers of Syrian militias

In April 2014 the US Treasury sought to remind Kuwait that, while Washington was committed to a cooperative relationship, it would act unilaterally against those it deemed terrorist financiers. Under Executive Order 13224, the US Treasury designated Kuwaitis, Shafi al-Ajmi, Hajjaj al-Aljmi and Abd al-Rahman Khalaf Anizi, as Specially Designated Global Terrorists (SDGTs), froze any of their assets under US jurisdiction and prohibited any US persons from conducting business with them. While the formal substance of sanctions is arguably irrelevant, the political message from Washington was significant. Kuwait had failed to rein in supporters of Syrian militias and the US was now stepping in.

The sanctions documents suggest that multiple trends in terror financing can be sourced back to Kuwait. The provision of assistance to militia groups coordinating with the al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra, given al-Qaeda’s historical antipathy for the Gulf regimes, is difficult to reconcile with loyal Kuwaiti citizenship. In this climate, it is unsurprising that a raft of secondary legislation designed to protect the State of Kuwait internally was passed. In the Arab world, and particularly the GCC, this also meant strengthening the state’s already considerable power against political opposition at home.

Legislation to protect the state

The Shia community is around 30 per cent of the national population, and Kuwait has thus far avoided the sectarian trap that has ensnared other regional states. Shia representation in the parliamentary system, has tied the community to the state. Despite these safeguards, Kuwait has moved to implement a range of security measures ostensibly to protect the state, including the stripping of citizenship and penal terms for insulting the ruling family or criticising government policy.

The most well-known case is that of Hamas al-Naqi, a Shia blogger sentenced for 10 years in 2012 over Twitter insults against the Saudi royals and the Prophet Muhammad. Al-Naqi has claimed his innocence, asserting his account was hacked.

Using this kind of legislation to enforce the social contract and protect the ruling elite is not without regional precedent. What is interesting in the Kuwaiti context is the political and popular support for sectarian harmony, a sentiment not mirrored throughout the region. In the aftermath of the 2015 bombing, Sunni-Shia solidarity was publicly evident in Kuwait and indeed fostered by the ruling family. This serves as a powerful repudiation of the Daesh agenda and arguably places further pressure on those Kuwaitis supportive of such organisations abroad.

Balancing act

Kuwait stands at the intersection of competing trends in the Arab world. It is a self-consciously diverse society with a long history of inclusion of Shia communities. Kuwait’s successes and failures are keenly watched in a region attempting to balance an elite desire for continuity with varied and sporadic public pressure for change.

Internationally, Kuwait is a formal ally of the US, still the dominant external player in Arab affairs, especially in the Gulf. It is also a publicly recognised benefactor of the Syrian people, leading the world in the provision of humanitarian support. This is balanced against strong currents in Kuwaiti society supporting radical agendas in Syria. Pre-2014, these ‘armchair jihadists’ clearly funded militias fighting and dying in Syria against the Assad regime.

Domestically, this fraught environment has afforded the government the opportunity to tighten legislation to protect the state. The terrorist attack of 2015 only strengthened the government’s hand in these matters, with the subsequent passing of DNA collection laws, which many observers see as a significant violation of privacy norms. Under significant international pressure, the DNA databased legislation was watered down in October 2016. It will, however, be interesting to watch the future trajectory of these kinds of laws in an increasingly securitised global environment.

The balancing act required of Kuwait is daunting. It seeks to support the Syrian people, while containing financing for terrorist organisations, many of which claim to be acting on behalf of the Syrian people. Finally, Kuwait is seeking to maintain a largely authoritarian political system, despite some elements of a democratic tradition, in the face of a regional context marked by transition.

Dr Kylie Baxter teaches at the University of Melbourne. Her recent publications explore international and regional responses to the Syrian conflict, foreign terrorist fighters and the changing political environment in the Gulf region. 

This article is an extract from Baxter’s article in Volume 71, Issue 2 of the Australian Journal of International Affairs titled ‘Kuwait, Political Violence and the Syrian War‘. It is republished with permission.