Netherlands supported Syrian jihadist group: report

A destroyed neighborhood in Raqqa, Syria, 1 Aug 2017
A destroyed neighborhood in Raqqa, Syria, 1 Aug 2017Photo: Mahmoud Bali / Wikimedia Commons

The Dutch government supported Jabhat al-Shamiya, an armed group in Syria that the Public Prosecutor labeled terrorist, according to research by Nieuwsuur and Trouw. A Dutch man is currently being prosecuted for participating in this group. The indictment states that Jabhat al-Shamiya is "salafist and jihadist", "strives for the establishment of a caliphate", and "can't be otherwise qualified" than as a "criminal organization with terrorist intent", Nieuwsuur reports.

Last year the Netherlands provided Jabhat al-Shamiya with uniforms and pickup trucks, among other things. The logistics equipment was sent to the group in the context of the state secret NLA program, which stands for 'non lethal assistance', according to Nieuwsuur. Through this program the Netherlands provided 'non-lethal goods' to 22 combat groups in Syria from 2015 until early this year. The research also showed that there was insufficient supervision on the aid provided to the Syrian groups and that the Tweede Kamer, the lower house of Dutch parliament, was barely informed about what was going on. 

Parliamentarians have been asking for information about the NLA program for years, but until now the government has kept the names of the supported groups and specifics about the aid given to them secret. NIeuwsuur and Trouw managed to discover which groups were involved and which goods they received from the Netherlands. They talked to about 100 Syrian rebels over the past months and identified six specific armed groups that received Dutch support. 

One of them was Jabhat al-Shamiya. Other groups that received Dutch support also appear to have been guilty of serious human rights violations and cooperating with extremist groups, according to the news agencies. Their investigation also showed that the Netherlands supplied Toyota Hilux and Isuzu Dmax pickup trucks, uniforms, satellite telephones, laptops, mattresses, backpacks and cameras to the Syrian groups. The rebels told Nieuwsuur and Trouw that they are very satisfied with the Dutch aid and that they are using the Dutch goods in the armed struggle. 

Videos the involved rebel groups put on their YouTube channels show machine guns fixed on the type of pickup truck the Netherlands provided, and rebels shooting at their targets from that type of truck. According to Nieuwsuur, it is impossible to check whether the specific trucks provided by the Netherlands were used in this way, because the trucks do not have any distinguishing marks on them. 

On Friday evening Minister Stef Blok of Foreign Affairs and Minister Sigrid Kaag of Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation unexpectedly sent a letter to the Tweede Kamer announcing that aid to Syrian groups will be halted. According to the Ministers, a victory for President Assad seems imminent and the tide can not be reversed. According to Nieuwsuur, this happened after it and Trouw presented Foreign Affairs with their findings for a response. 

The Ministry told the news agencies that they take the results of their findings "very seriously". A spokesperson said: "The reports strengthen our conviction that stopping the support was the right decision."

The Ministers also sent a an evaluation to the Kamer on Friday, stating that there was insufficient supervision on the NLA program and that the program has now been halted. According to Nieuwsuur, a few months ago the Ministry wrote that the NLA program made sure that "moderate combatants" could better protect themselves against extremists, and that stopping such programs risks that "extremist groups would gain further strength". 

Up until now Foreign Affairs always told the Kamer that the Netherlands only supported "moderate groups" in Syria and that these groups are subject to strict criteria. They respect "humanitarian law of war", don't cooperate with extremists, and pursue an "inclusive political solution" for Syria, the Ministry said. 

Parliamentarians are shocked by Nieuwsuur and Trouw's revelations. Sjoerd Sjoerdsma, MP for ruling party D66, called the revelations "shocking", according to NOS. He wants to know how it came this far. According to him, the Kamer warned several times that this could happen.

Other ruling party CDA asked questions about the possibility that the Netherlands is supporting dangerous groups multiple times. Parliamentarians Pieter Omtzigt and Martijn van Helvert want a debate about this as soon as possible. "I want to be able to check what the government has done", Omtzigt said to NOS. 

Gert-Jan Segers, leader of coalition party ChristenUnie, spoke of a disconcerting image to Nieuwsuur. In 2015 his party filed a motion calling the government to stop supporting the moderate opposition, but the motion failed. "What is happening right now is exactly what we feared then. You don't know if there were human rights violations or cooperation with jihadists. That is exactly what you do not want", he said. 

According to the PVV, the Nieuwsuur and Trouw investigation shows that the Dutch government broadly supports terrorists. "Rutte 3 = Terrorists 1", PVV leader Geert Wilders said on Twitter.