Swedish authorities have opened an investigation into the activities of Haitham Rahma, a Swedish citizen born in Homs.
Rahma’s political background is interesting: he is a former Muslim Brotherhood member and remains (at the very least) close to the group, having served as deputy head of the Ikhwani-backed League of Muslim Scholars. In Sweden, he was formerly a preacher at the capital’s main mosque and briefly gained some media attention when he helped organize a strong Swedish Muslim condemnation of the 2010 suicide attack in Stockholm.
Since January 2012, Haitham Rahma is also the head of the Commission for the Protection of Civilians, or CPC, which funds armed anti-Assad groups in Syria. It grew out of a network called the National Coalition to Support the Syrian Revolution, which was set up at one of the early Syrian opposition congresses in 2011. Its central figure, the France-based Syrian Muslim Brotherhood member Nadhir Hakim, eventually became the political leader of the CPC, while Rahma focused on organizing military affairs.
Haitham Rahma denies that the CPC has any relationship to the Muslim Brotherhood, but as detailed in this Carnegie report and in many reports by Raphaël Lefèvre, the CPC has served as a Brotherhood funding arm, drawing on financial contributions from Syrian expats and other sympathizers. It was one of the first organized funding channels for the insurgency, although later dwarfed by money pouring in from Salafi preachers in the Gulf and from states like Qatar and Saudi Arabia. It seems to have played an important role running guns from Libya, via Turkey – apparently with the support of Turkish authorities and allegedly with backing from Qatar.
Aligned With the FSA
While the CPC initially seemed to spread its funds and guns far outside the Muslim Brotherhood, casting a wide net among religiously inclined militia commanders and FSA units, it soon began putting pressure on those groups that wanted the money and ammunition to keep coming, demanding that they conform to Ikhwani policy. Some reacted angrily and withdrew from the collaboration, but others stuck with the CPC and were linked ever more tightly to the Brotherhood. Soon, the umbrella had come to include several active groups, mainly in Homs and the surrounding countryside (in places like Talbisa and the Houla enclave), but also in some other areas of Syria, including Idleb, the Damascus hinterland, and Aleppo.
The CPC groups generally describe themselves as members of the FSA and they coordinate with the general staff of Brig. Gen. Salim Idriss, placing them on the Western-backed flank of the uprising. This is entirely in line with the Brotherhood’s bet on foreign support and sets the CPC apart from the growing radical-Islamist trend inside the country, which spurns Western tutelage.
The CPC has consequently worked to integrate its leadership with the mainstream, Western-backed segments of the opposition and supported the creation of first the Syrian National Council (in Oct. 2011) and then the National Coalition (Nov. 2012), as well as the Supreme Military Command of Brig. Gen. Idriss (Dec. 2012). This is reflected in the career paths of both Haitham Rahma and Nadhir Hakim: Rahma was elected first to the SNC and then to the NC, while Hakim reached even more prominent positions within the mainstream opposition, as member of the SNC’s executive office and the political office of the NC.
What the CPC is doing is very much part of the mainstream opposition and while it involves some very shady work, it isn’t necessarily illegal—at least not everywhere. There is no UN arms embargo against Syria—due to the diligent efforts of Mr. Vladimir Putin—and both the Libyan and the Turkish governments seem to heartily approve of the arms trade that passes across their territory. The Assad government disagrees, of course, but that's rather beside the point for the actors involved.
Swedish Authorities Reluctant to Act
However, Rahma is still a Swedish citizen and therefore subject to Swedish arms control regulations, which stipulate that citizens need specific permission to deal with military equipment, even if the trade does not involve Sweden.
Authorities hadn’t intervened until now and the government and intelligence services seemed perfectly content to let Rahma go about his business. But when Swedish Radio did an investigation of Rahma and the CPC last week, splashing his name all across Swedish media under somewhat sensationalist headlines about how ”the imam” had recruited men to ”fight alongside al-Qaeda,” they had no choice. The minister of justice called for attention to the issue and Swedish police opened an investigation, which may or may not lead to a trial. The maximum punishment for breaking the arms control law is four years in prison.
To defend itself, the CPC has tried to downplay reports that it is buying weapons abroad, saying it was only shipping containers of baby milk from Libya and insisting that it buys all weapons from sources inside Syria. If true, that would make the matter an internal affair outside of the purview of Swedish authorities — but of course, no one really believes that the CPC and its Libyan contacts are in the clandestine baby milk trade.
Legal action in Sweden could result in trouble for Rahma himself, but it is less likely to affect the CPC. The group’s activities take place outside of Sweden and the EU; they seem to enjoy firm Turkish support and probably also the tacit backing of other states. Swedish authorities, for their part, mostly appear eager to extract themselves from the affair as soon as possible. Therefore, the CPC’s arming of Syrian rebels and Muslim Brotherhood affiliates is likely to continue, despite the Stockholm hiccup — under this or another name.