How UN aid in Syria is increasingly going to regime cronies

8 min read
29 May, 2024

In the face of mounting evidence, the United Nations (UN) - the primary facilitator of the multi-billion-dollar humanitarian aid industry in Syria - has failed to make any impactful changes to improve the efficacy of its operations in regime-held areas, analysts say.

A report published on 22 May revealed that although the UN’s overall aid procurements within Syria decreased over 2021-2022, compared to 2019-2020, more funding went to organisations with ties to human rights abusers and sanctioned individuals, mostly cronies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Since the 2011 popular uprising, Syria has been ravaged by military campaigns that have destroyed the country’s infrastructure and displaced millions. The country has also been heavily impacted by Covid-19, a cholera outbreak, the 7.8 magnitude earthquake in February 2023, and multiple economic crises.

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While funding for Syria has dwindled to all-time lows, nearly 70 percent of the Syrian population has plunged into poverty.

Meanwhile, Assad and his cronies have profited immensely off Syria’s war economy and the billions the UN has poured into the country.

“For the last 13 years, the regime has been manipulating the UN’s policies and procedures to its benefit, with the knowledge of donor states,” Noha al-Kamcha, a Syrian analyst and one of the authors of the report, told The New Arab.

“Syria is on the verge of famine and every dollar counts, but these dollars are not being used properly,” al-Kamcha stated.

The authors of the report obtained a leaked data set in July 2023 from the Syrian Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment, where the Syrian government kept track of UN-NGO partnerships. The UN had not made this data publicly available online.

"For the last 13 years, the regime has been manipulating the UN's policies and procedures to its benefit, with the knowledge of donor states"

​​The report detailed six individuals or companies - sanctioned by the US, UK, and the EU - which had been contracted by various UN bodies for amounts ranging from $137,882 up to over $33 million between 2021 and 2022.

The “vast majority” of the sanctioned suppliers are connected to the Assad regime and have “extensive ties to the security apparatus implicated in bringing about a significant part of the humanitarian catastrophe the UN’s aid is supposed to be remedying”, the report said.

The UN is not obliged to adhere to Western sanctions, however, the report said: “The continued trust between donor states - overwhelmingly Western - and the UN is creating a glaring contradiction: funding and sanctioning the same people at the same time”.

Syria war
Rights groups say the Syrian regime and its foreign allies are responsible for over 90% of civilian casualties in the war. [Getty]

'Lack of transparency'

“The most alarming thing [in the report’s findings] is the lack of transparency,” Karam Shaar, a Syrian political economist and the lead author of the report, told The New Arab. “The UN is actively hiding some of its operations, not making the information publicly available,” he said.

In 2022, Syria had the highest share of procurements from suppliers hidden in the UN’s database for “security” or “privacy” reasons, compared to five countries with the largest humanitarian responses: Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Yemen, and Somalia, the report said.

The UN agencies procuring from the “hidden” suppliers tended to be accused of more violations. For instance, the World Health Organization (WHO) - who the report said was “leading the way” in procuring from “hidden” suppliers - has been accused of giving out “golden coins and cars” to regime officials.

The report published a list of seven NGOs with “open and strong support for the Assad regime” and the funding they received, according to the leaked Syrian government data. 

"A report published in May revealed that while the UN's overall aid procurements within Syria decreased over 2021-2022, more funding went to organisations with ties to human rights abusers and sanctioned individuals, mostly Assad cronies"

The Syria Trust for Development, founded by Asma al-Assad, Bashar al-Assad’s wife, was one of the organisations listed as receiving $2.3 million in renewed funding from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) between 2020-2021, for providing legal assistance to returnees and internally displaced people. 

The UN does not state they funded the Trust “in any year” between 2019 and 2022, al-Kamcha noted, despite the “hefty amount” it received. 

Also listed was the Nour Association for Relief and Development, which received a renewed grant of nearly $1.8 million from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and another from the World Health Organization (WHO) exceeding $170,000.

Chairing the Association is Mohammad Jalbout, a Syrian-Palestinian national accused of numerous human rights violations, including his involvement in the case of prominent Palestinian opposition photographer Niraz Saeed, the report said. Saeed was likely tortured to death in regime prisons after his arrest in 2015.

Jalbout also introduces himself as a member of the Popular Front-General Command, a Palestinian militant group that fought alongside Syrian regime forces in the civil war. The group is listed as a terrorist organisation by the US, EU, UK, and Canada.

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No monitoring 

In regime-held Syria, UN humanitarian activities completely lack third-party monitoring, the report said - a stark contrast to the rigorous vetting process applied to the UN aid en route to opposition-held northwest Syria.

In Turkey’s southern aid hub in Gaziantep, al-Kamcha noted the aid destined for northwest Syria is vetted to ensure it does not fall into the hands of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a previous al-Qaeda affiliate under sanction by the UN which controls a large portion of the region.

“Meanwhile, in Damascus, you have sanctioned people who are benefiting off millions of [aid] dollars,” she said.

“The UN needs to consult with civil society organisations and there needs to be a rigorous, thorough vetting process [in regime-held areas],” al-Kamcha said, “The same that takes place in northern Syria should take place in regime-held areas. They shouldn’t be treated differently.”

Madaniya, an umbrella group of over 150 Syrian civil society organisations, criticised a new pool of funding the UN is planning for Syria, where they said civil society organisations were not adequately consulted in the planning process, according to an April statement, which al-Kamcha sent to The New Arab.

“The fact that the UN has not been pushing for a change, and are just following old, traditional, top-down, Western-like policies and procedures for Syria - a kind of approach without a localised perspective of the context - is very alarming,” al-Kamcha stated.

Assad poster
The Syrian regime has long directed aid to its supporters and impeded aid to its opposers. [Getty]

'Critically' deal with Syrian state

Joseph Daher, a Syrian-Swiss researcher who has published multiple papers on humanitarian aid and development in Syria, told The New Arab that “the UN should favour small to middle-sized NGOs that do not have links with the regime and are not serving [the regime’s] direct interests”.

Contracting businessmen who “don’t have blood on their hands or who aren’t sanctioned should be a minimum”, Daher added.

He also noted that when it comes to humanitarian aid provision in Syria it “is impossible” to completely avoid the Syrian state. While certain Syrian ministries - like the Ministry of Interior or the Defence Ministry - should not be collaborated with, other government sectors, like telecommunications, health, and education would still be beneficial to deal with to a certain extent, although critically.

“In any kind of economic recovery [plans], you need the role of the state, whether we like it or not,” he stated.

If the UN only deals with private actors, it will encourage privatisation - one of Assad’s policy objectives, Daher said. Assad’s intention to embrace neoliberal economics dates back to the start of his rule in 2000, but “the government’s appetite for privatisation” has intensified since 2011, Daher wrote in an April article with al-Majalla, a current and political affairs magazine.

“It’s a way to withdraw from their social responsibility towards the people and for the crony capitalists to accumulate capital through their capture of particular sectors of the economy,” he said. 

"Without a more rigorous vetting process for UN suppliers in regime-held areas, huge chunks of humanitarian aid will stay in the hands of Assad and his cronies - who can divert it for personal gains"

Aid diversion

Without a more rigorous vetting process for UN suppliers in regime-held areas, huge chunks of humanitarian aid will stay in the hands of Assad and his cronies - who can divert it for personal gains.

“Multiple reports have come out documenting aid diversion, yet, there has been no policy shift whatsoever,” al-Kamcha said.

The Syrian regime has long directed aid to its supporters and impeded aid to its opposers. The regime uses a distorted exchange rate, which allowed it to divert nearly 51 cents of every international aid dollar spent in Syria in 2020, according to a 2021 Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) report. As a result, the humanitarian response lost over $100 million in 2019 and 2020, the report said.

Al-Kamcha noted that certain regime-supportive areas in Syria, such as rural Homs and Aleppo, receive noticeably more aid than other areas. She also said that according to the leaked government data accessed in the report, large portions of the UN aid are getting distributed as cash and services to Syrian military families.

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The regime has weaponised aid for years against the northeast Syrian territories, governed by the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria. Similarly, Assad has cut off most aid from entering the opposition-held northwest and has laid siege to Rukban camp on the Jordan-Syrian border, blocking food, medicine, and other essential assistance from reaching its around 8,000 residents.

“It’s difficult to be able to operate in a principled way in a context like Syria,” said Shaar, the Syrian political economist. However, “things could be done differently if there is enough pressure from donor states on the regime”, he said.

He said the exchange rate gap - the gap between the black market and the rate imposed on humanitarian transactions as dictated by Assad - has become narrower following advocacy campaigns and reforms: evidence that solutions for UN aid in Syria are possible.

“The UN, given the amount of money they actually hold, has leverage against the regime they are not utilising fully,” Shaar said.

“It’s quite difficult and it’s at times excruciating, however, something can be done,” he added. “It’s just that donor states and the UN are taking the easy route.”

Hanna Davis is a freelance journalist reporting on politics, foreign policy, and humanitarian affairs.

Follow her on Twitter: @hannadavis341