Behind a glittering mall near Doha’s city center sits the quiet restaurant where Hossam used to run his Syrian rebel brigade. At the battalion’s peak in 2012 and 2013, he had 13,000 men under his control near the eastern city of Deir Ezzor. “Part of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), they are loyal to me,” he said over sweet tea and sugary pastries this spring. “I had a good team to fight.”
Hossam, a middle-aged Syrian expat, owns several restaurants throughout Doha, Qatar, catering mostly to the country’s upper crust. The food is excellent, and at night the tables are packed with well-dressed Qataris, Westerners, and Arabs. Some of his revenue still goes toward supporting brigades and civilians with humanitarian goods — blankets, food, even cigarettes.
He insists that he has stopped sending money to the battle, for now. His brigade’s funds came, at least in part, from Qatar, he says, under the discretion of then Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Khalid bin Mohammed Al Attiyah. But the injection of cash was ad hoc: Dozens of other brigades like his received initial start-up funding, and only some continued to receive Qatari support as the months wore on. When the funds ran out in mid-2013, his fighters sought support elsewhere. “Money plays a big role in the FSA, and on that front, we didn’t have,” he explained.
Hossam is a peripheral figure in a vast Qatari network of Islamist-leaning proxies that spans former Syrian generals, Taliban insurgents, Somali Islamists, and Sudanese rebels. He left home in 1996 after more than a decade under pressure from the Syrian regime for his sympathy with the Muslim Brotherhood. Many of his friends were killed in a massacre of the group in Hama province in 1982 by then President Hafez al-Assad. He finally found refuge here in Qatar and built his business and contacts slowly. Mostly, he laid low; Doha used to be quite welcoming to the young President Bashar al-Assad and his elegant wife, who were often spotted in the high-end fashion boutiques before the revolt broke out in 2011.
Read More:The Case Against Qatar.