Dutch government financed jihadist rebels in Syria
A recent study suggests that the Dutch government, by sending 28 million euros worth of supplies to jihadist rebels in Syria, almost certainly violated international law. How could this happen?
The ‘NLA’ (non-lethal assistance) program
Between July 2015 and April 2018, the Dutch government provided 28 million euros worth of ‘non-lethal’ supplies to 22 Syrian rebel groups, to aid them in their fight against the Assad regime.  The supplies consisted of things like vehicles, tactical vests, laptops, communication equipment, and uniforms, but no weapons. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (governed by Stef Blok and Sigrid Kaag) claimed it only supported ‘moderate’ groups who (1) applied humanitarian martial law, (2) did not cooperate with extremists, and (3) were working for an ‘inclusive political solution’ for Syria. However, in late 2018, journalists discovered that many of these groups did violate human rights, did cooperate with extremists, and did have Islamist or even jihadist ideologies (e.g., they wanted to create an Islamic state).  Surprisingly, some of the same groups were designated as ‘criminal organisations with a terrorist intent’ by the Dutch Public Prosecution Service (OM). Based on this, the OM prosecuted several Dutch nationals for their membership in these groups, even though the Dutch state had been financing the groups all along.  How many of the 22 rebel groups were jihadists who violated human rights is still a secret, but we do have information about several of them.
Jabhat al-Shamiya (‘The Levant Front’)
One of the funded groups was Jabhat al-Shamiya (‘The Levant Front’), which is still one of the biggest jihadist groups in Syria. The goal of the Front was to create an Islamic state (caliphate), just like ISIS. The Dutch Foreign Ministry received an Amnesty report in 2016 which warned that the Levant Front performed executions, kidnapped people, and ran ‘sharia’ (Islamic law) courts which punished apostasy (abandoning one’s faith) with the death penalty. Amnesty explicitly requested the Ministry to encourage all countries that supported the Front to withdraw their support immediately, even if the support was non-lethal. Despite these warnings, the Dutch government started providing such support in 2017. Later, the OM also designated the Front as a ‘terrorist organisation’, while the Foreign Ministry kept insisting that it was ‘moderate’. The OM’s designation led to the prosecution of multiple Dutch nationals who had been members of the Front. In other words, Dutch nationals were prosecuted for membership in a terrorist organisation that the Dutch state was simultaneously funding. In late 2018, when the NLA program had just been stopped, the Dutch Parliament started discussing the fact that the Levant Front had a “clear jihadist and Salafist background”, and was a former collaboration partner of other “terrorist and jihadist groups, such as al-Nusra.” 
The Sultan Murad Brigade
The Dutch NLA program also aided a rebel group known as the Sultan Murad Brigade, which perpetrated war crimes, killed civilians, used child soldiers, and collaborated with Al-Qaeda in 2015. This collaboration was public knowledge before the NLA program started. Numerous UN reports have also warned of human rights violations by the Brigade and other rebel groups. The fact that the Netherlands participated in both the UN Human Rights Council and the UN commission investigating war crimes in Syria makes it virtually impossible for them to be unaware of these reports. However, they continued funding the Brigade until 2018.
Ahrar al-Sham (‘Islamic Movement of the Free Men of the Levant’)
A third interesting case is that of Ahrar al-Sham, which is also one of the biggest jihadist groups in Syria. Like ISIS, it wanted to create an Islamic state under sharia law, and has perpetrated suicide bombings, war crimes, crimes against civilians (like executions), kidnapping, torture, and murder.  In keeping with the pattern, the Dutch OM branded Ahrar al-Sham as a jihadist ‘terrorist’ organisation, while the Foreign Ministry regarded it as ‘moderate’. While the group has probably not been financed directly, its former spokesman, Labib Al-Nahhas, received funding directly from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Besides the funding for his role as program director for SACD (Syrian Association for Citizen’s Dignity), he also received a personal allowance of 700 euros per day, 10 days a month on average. The Foreign Ministry claims that it was not aware of Al-Nahhas’s past, because the organisations he worked for did not tell the Ministry about his background. However, Arabist scholar Maurits Berger has commented that a 2016 tweet by Al-Nahhas clearly shows that he was targeting the Assad regime because of its Alawite (Shiite) religious background. Dutch politician Martijn van Helvert described missing this tweet as a “huge screening blunder.” After his past was revealed, Al-Nahhas resigned from his role, but the funding of the (non-jihadist) organisation he worked for still continues. The Foreign Ministry also provided logistical supplies to at least three rebel groups who closely collaborated with Ahrar al-Sham.
Which other countries were involved
On the face of it, the Dutch NLA program seems like an independent initiative, but upon closer examination we can see that it arose out of an international effort that was spearheaded by the United States. The US started leading the anti-ISIS ‘Operation Inherent Resolve’ in 2014, and was quickly joined by at least 82 other countries.  Later in 2014, the NLA program was initiated to provide assistance to ‘moderate’ rebels, in order to create a ‘credible alternative’ to the extremist opposition of al-Nusra and ISIS. Then, after the 2015 terror attacks in Paris, the NLA program started gaining momentum due to requests from the US and France. However, in 2011, the British and French were already pushing for the ability to send weapons to the moderate opposition, which enabled many other countries to do the same. The authors of the academic study about the Dutch NLA program therefore argue that the program was not as problematic as the programs of other countries like the US, UK, and France, because they actually provided weapons, military training, and tactical intelligence to Syrian rebels.
The Netherlands will be further investigated
The authors of the first academic study about the Dutch NLA program claim that “it violated the principle of non-intervention, the prohibition on the use of force and the duty to ensure respect for international humanitarian law.” There may also be “secondary State responsibility” for the legal violations of the supported rebel groups. Carla del Ponte, a former Chief Prosecutor of two UN international criminal law tribunals, has therefore argued that the Netherlands may be complicit in war crimes, which should be investigated by an international tribunal. The Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has personally tried to prevent an investigation into the Dutch support of rebels (by pressuring his colleagues), but recently Parliament has agreed to install an independent commission, which should get access to all relevant state secrets about the case. Beyond creating a series of difficulties for Rutte’s government, these investigations could also harm their plans to bring Syria to the International Court of Justice for human rights violations, since the Netherlands itself may be guilty of such offences.
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 Ibid: “313 vehicles (ambulances, mini-buses, pick-up trucks –some outfitted to withstand improvised explosive devices, trucks, tractors, skid-steer loaders and motorcycles), 600 tactical vests (without ballistic protection), 243 laptops, as well as communication equipment, cameras, printers, food packages, medical kits, generators, uniforms and winter clothing, mattresses and blankets, and two pre-fab containers.”
 By Islamism I mean an ideology that seeks to impose one particular interpretation of Islam on the rest of society, or create an Islamic state (caliphate). Jihadists are the ones who want to do that through violent means.
 OM stands for ‘Openbaar Ministerie’ (Public Ministry).
 Salafism is a fundamentalist branch of Sunni Islam. The jihadi variety of Salafism is only of its three forms: Salafism | Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion.
 Actuele situatie in Noord-Afrika en het Midden-Oosten, question 265.
 Nederlands geld voor voormalig gezicht van terroristische organisatie – Argos. Labib Al-Nahhas was the spokesman for Ahrar al-Sham up until 2017.
 Alawites are a small Shiite Muslim minority, while most of the Syrian rebel groups are Sunni Muslims who regard Shiites as heretics or even as non-Muslims. Syria’s Alawites, a secretive and persecuted sect.
 Door Nederland gesubsidieerd oud-kopstuk terroristische organisatie trekt zich terug – Argos. The EIP (European Institute of Peace), which the SACD (Syrian Association for Citizen’s Dignity) is part of, was still being funded in November 2020.
 Ibid, p. 5.
 Ibid, p. 35.