In June 2016, the Beirut-based NGO ‘The Syria Campaign’ released a report accusing the United Nations of losing its long-standing principle of impartiality in the Syrian civil war by effectively allowing the Syrian regime to control billions of dollars’ worth of humanitarian aid. The investigative report which involved interviewing dozens of UN staff (current and former employees), concluded that Bashar al-Assad is the sole bearer of a veto power over the allocation and delivery of humanitarian aid to war-affected areas. Thus, probably unwillingly, the UN aid program enabled the regime to utilise sieges as a weapon of war. The report found that in 2015, almost 90 per cent of UN requests for aid delivery of humanitarian supplies were either denied by the regime or redirected to its controlled areas. This phenomenon has unintentionally helped to boost Assad’s rule, as sentiments in regime-controlled areas remained docile, regardless of the regime facing a drain in male-fighters in its Alawite environment due to the heavy losses it has suffered in 5 years of war thus far.
Additionally, in August 2016, The Guardian published an investigative report that showed a series of contracts awarded by the United Nations relief mission to government and charities were linked to the Syrian president’s family and his close circle of confidantes.
According to The Guardian, as part of a Syria aid program, the UN mission in Damascus has paid substantial amounts to businessmen, such as the likes of Rami Makhlouf – Assad’s cousin and his closest associate – whose companies are under US and EU sanctions, in addition to charities setup by regime figures, such as Asma al-Assad, the president’s wife. The UN responded by saying that it has a very small window of cooperation with local NGOs and it is only allowed to cooperate with a small number of partners previously approved by the presidency. In addition, the UN claims that its aim was focused on the importance of “reaching as many vulnerable civilians as possible.” The organisation’s justification also mentioned the difficulty of reaching partners who can cooperate in besieged or rebel-held areas.
However, during its analysis of the UN-awarded contracts since the operation began in 2011, The Guardian found that, for instance, the UN’s World Health Organization (WHO) spent over $5 million on blood supplies to Syria’s national blood bank, which is controlled by the regime’s defense department. Yet, the WHO expressed concerns over the possibility of these blood supplies being directed to the military first and then to wounded civilians second, instead of directly reaching those in need. The organisation did not take any tangible actions in that regard. Moreover, following the regime’s crackdown, which started in 2011, the European Union adopted a number of restrictive measures towards Syria and especially the Syrian departments of farming and agriculture, including, among others, an import ban on crude oil and petroleum products. However, The Guardian reported that the UN had paid more than $13 million to the Syrian government in an attempt to improve farming and agriculture. It also paid at least $4 million to the state-owned fuel supplier.
Furthermore, the Syria Trust, a collection of organisations that function under the charity sector of the government, founded and chaired by Asma al-Assad personally, partnered with two UN relief agencies and received an estimate of $8.5 million, while the president’s wife is herself under both US and EU sanctions. Additionally, Rami Makhlouf – the owner and chair of Al-Bustan Association and another target of EU and UN sanctions, received a payment of $267,933 from UNICEF. Makhlouf, who was described in US diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks as the Syrian “poster boy for corruption,” also owns the Syrian mobile phone network ‘Syriatel’ for which he also received an estimate of $700,000 from the UN in order to develop the communications sector in the war-torn country. Correspondingly, UN agencies operating in Syria are mostly staffed by former Syrian ministry officials whose loyalty to the regime is unabated.
The Guardian’s report also analysed the United Nations procurement documents and concluded that a myriad of UN agencies have conducted business with at least 258 other Syrian companies, either owned by the regime or to people affiliated to it, while paying varying sums of money starting from $30,000 to $54 million.
A UN spokesman told the Guardian that a huge sum of money (around $9 million) had been paid between 2015 and 2016 to the Four Seasons hotel in Damascus, which hosts UN staff since it is deemed as the safest point in the city. However, one third of the hotel is owned by Syria’s ministry of tourism, a department put under EU sanctions. According to his statement, the UN was faced with only two options: either the procurement of goods and services from businesses that might be affiliated with the government or with regime personnel, or leave civilians without life-saving assistance. In this case, the UN’s decision was to stand by its duty to aid civilians in distress. However, this decision ultimately led to thousands of civilians dying of malnutrition and lack of medical aid.
The UN repeatedly defends its operation in Syria and insists on its impartiality. The whole debate prompted the UN’s Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, Stephen O’Brien, to address The Guardian in September 2016, in a tribune letter in which he insisted on the fact that UN agencies “must work with key government departments to support the delivery of public services and humanitarian relief.” He added that in certain countries such as Syria, ruling governments demand that the UN only cooperates with a list of “authorised partners.” Yet, he said that the UN has conducted its due diligence and carefully chose its partners from the list, based on the assessment of their ability to deliver. He also added that the UN has no obligation to abide by EU or US sanctions and that it only needs to abide by UN sanctions. Yet, former UN officials, diplomats and the head of Human Rights Watch (HRW) all have continued to express serious concerns about the way Damascus appears to be directing the aid effort while benefiting from the deals.
However, the vast majority of people in need of assistance remain in anti-regime, rebel-held areas, where the UN position is deemed disappointing as they consider neither the regime nor its authorized list of local associations for partnership to recognise the humanitarian principles of impartiality, independence and neutrality.
To add to that, Dr. Reinoud Leenders, an expert in war studies based at King’s College in London, described, in a Guardian tribune in late August 2016, the UN’s $4 billion Syria aid effort to date as “morally bankrupt.” The UN aid agencies, he wrote, have “willingly handed lucrative procurement contracts to regime cronies,” who in turn have been fully supportive and sometimes bankrolled the regime’s repression and brutality, which initially agitated the conflict and drove it this far. According to Leenders, when the UN is confronted with criticism for what he considers an utter failure in its response to the Syrian humanitarian crisis, UN officials routinely blame lack of resources. In the words of the Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, Stephen O’Brien: the system is broke and not broken.
In September 2016, as a response to the Guardian’s findings, over 70 aid groups decided to suspend cooperation with the different UN agencies operating in Syria. This was the result of a culmination of frustration between local NGOs functioning in anti-government areas over the delivery of aid to besieged areas of the country. The aid groups demanded an “immediate and transparent investigation” into its operation due to major concerns over the Syrian president’s “significant and substantial” influence over the UN’s relief effort.
In a protest against the work conducted by the UN agencies the aid groups, among which widely known Syrian organizations such as the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) and the Syrian Civil Defence or “White Helmets,” decided to withdraw from the UN’s information-sharing program. The 73 aid groups also addressed the UN with a letter citing their refusal to tolerate the “manipulation of humanitarian relief efforts by the political interests of the Syrian government that deprives other Syrians in besieged areas from the services of these programmes”.
In the letter, addressed to the Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the different aid groups explained that the purpose behind “the whole of Syria’s information-sharing mechanism” was to prevent or narrow-down gaps in the aid response, in an attempt to bring on board all the humanitarian actors providing cross-border relief. However, UN agencies based in Damascus and its counterpart the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), have been systematically taking the final decisions, which are mostly “shaped by the political influence of the regime.”
The groups remain persistent in pressuring the UN to help stop the regime from the use of sieges and starvation as a “weapon of war.” But there is little hope that Damascus-based UN agencies will take a firm stance on the wider spectrum of the human rights violations conducted by the Syrian regime or will be able to help protect civilians from forced displacement from certain areas in rebel hands, such as the suburbs of Damascus.