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The international sanctions imposed on Syria since April 2011 are the most comprehensive on record. Nonetheless, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has over the past seven years waged an extraordinarily brutal war on his own people, killing half a million Syrians, displacing millions more, and creating a massive humanitarian crisis in the country.
Why have sanctions been so unsuccessful at stopping Assad’s killing machine? To some extent, the failure can be attributed to the Assad regime’s determination to survive, as well as to military and economic assistance from allies such as Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah. But a big part of the blame lies with the UN-led humanitarian effort in Syria. UN agencies such as the World Health Organization (WHO) have permitted the Assad regime to take control of the $30 billion international humanitarian response, using donor funds to skirt sanctions and subsidize the government’s war effort. The bulk of these billions in diverted funds are from the same Western governments that imposed the sanctions.
The Syrian government’s ability to hijack the most expensive humanitarian effort on record signals a need for the UN to reform its system for providing aid, which defers to sovereign states even when they have declared war on parts of their own population. It is especially important to accomplish this reform now, before Syria replicates its deadly—and successful—redirection tactics through its new appeals for reconstruction aid.
The roots of the UN’s problems in Syria go back to the early years of the civil war. In spring 2012, when the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) began mobilizing to provide aid to Syria, the Syrian government insisted that OCHA centralize all operations in Damascus. The regime cited UN General Assembly Resolution 46/182, the basis of OCHA’s mandate, which states that “humanitarian assistance should be provided with the consent of the affected country” and that “the affected State has the primary role in the initiation, organization, coordination, and implementation of humanitarian assistance within its territory. ”OCHA needed access, so it accepted Assad’s terms. Soon, some $216 million in humanitarian aid was pouring into the country, an amount that grew to over $3 billion annually in subsequent years.
The Syrian government’s ability to hijack the humanitarian effort signals a need for the UN to reform its system for providing aid.
Basing its operations in Damascus triggered a cascading set of problems for the UN and allowed the Assad regime to seize control of the relief effort. Syria’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs requires all humanitarian agencies to sign an agreement with the government’s official partner, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, prohibiting field visits and programming without the Red Crescent’s permission. The Red Crescent has long been tied to the Syrian state apparatus, and any hint of its independence was snuffed out after 2011, when the government put Red Crescent elections on indefinite hold, purged independent board members, and dismissed qualified staff. Intelligence agents posing as volunteers also infiltrated the organization, according to ex–Red Crescent volunteers that I spoke with. After these changes, the Red Crescent’s new unofficial policy was to deliver aid according to partisan criteria. Staff and volunteers who violated these rules were detained and tortured, even killed.
The government has also asserted itself through selective issuance of visas to international humanitarian staff—privileging the nationals of allied countries, such as Sudan—and tight control over the distribution of aid and medical supplies, which it withholds not just from areas controlled by the opposition, such as Idlib, but also from those such as Eastern Ghouta, formerly under siege but currently ruled by government forces.
To avoid regime control, many international aid agencies preferred to operate cross-border from Turkey or Jordan, working with Syrian partners to access millions of desperate civilians in opposition-held areas. The efficacy of this approach was demonstrated during a 2013 outbreak of polio. The WHO, based in Damascus, kept quiet for months while the government denied that there was an outbreak; Syrian nongovernmental organizations operating cross-border from Turkey, meanwhile, proved that polio had returned to Syria and conducted a successful mass vaccination campaign. Yet the consequences for NGOs of providing effective humanitarian aid outside of Assad’s control were made clear in April 2014, when Mercy Corps was evicted from Damascus.
In July 2014, after Russia agreed to withhold its veto, the UN Security Council formally adopted Resolution 2165, authorizing cross-border assistance—a landmark in prioritizing humanitarian aid over sovereignty. Yet UN agencies, unwilling to upset relations with the government, continued to give preference to their Damascus-based operations, granting enormous leverage to the regime. In a small but telling example of the effects of this leverage, in 2014 the WHO began publishing Assad’s preferred map of Syria, which includes a sizable part of Turkey. More significant, OCHA sanitized its 2016 Humanitarian Response Plan by using government-preferred language: “conflict” instead of “crisis”; “locations listed in relevant UNSC Resolutions” instead of areas besieged by government forces. OCHA also eliminated its mine-clearance programming because it would have operated cross-border, outside of Assad’s control.
The UN agencies’ decision to operate out of Damascus, however, has not merely limited the efficacy of their aid delivery: it has also enabled the Assad regime to repurpose international funds for its own ends.
The relief effort in Syria has involved massive flows of money, particularly for a country that has been economically crippled by years of civil war. An unpublished report by the Syrian Center for Policy Research, for instance, suggests that in 2017, the international community’s total humanitarian expenditures in Syria—including both UN and non-UN sources of funding—were equivalent to some 35 percent of the country’s GDP. Early in the war, the regime realized that the scale of this effort would overwhelm the Red Crescent’s capabilities. As a result, in 2013, the government established the Higher Relief Committee, an agency tasked with coordinating UN requests for humanitarian access with key government ministries and the different branches of the intelligence forces. HRC approval is required for any deliveries of aid by the Red Crescent, allowing the government to control who receives relief, where, and when. A 2016 HRC facilitation letter approving a Red Crescent aid delivery from Damascus, obtained by the author from a source within the Syrian aid community, was signed by the Syrian minister of health and officers from the air force and military intelligence agencies, suggesting the long-suspected role of these agencies in directing the humanitarian effort. The Ministry of Health and the heads of the air force and military intelligence are all subject to British, U.S., and EU sanctions.
In addition to controlling aid, the government siphons off large portions of the humanitarian funding to pay for the war effort and to line officials’ pockets. The siphoning process begins with a tax imposed on the salaries of all relief staff, ranging from five percent for the lowest-paid national staff to 20 percent for international staff. The U.S.-sanctioned Ministry of Foreign Affairs also requires organizations that rely on local implementing partners—which UN agencies such as the WHO typically do—to choose their partners from a list of “national NGOs.” This phrase is a euphemism for regime-controlled entities, such as Syria Trust (founded and chaired by Syrian First Lady Asma al-Assad), or shell companies disguised as charities, such as Al-Bustan, owned by Assad’s cousin Rami Makhlouf. Both Asma al-Assad and Makhlouf are subject to international sanctions, as is Walid Moallem, the minister of foreign affairs. In May 2017, the U.S. Treasury added Al-Bustan to its list of sanctioned entities. Yet since the UN does not require its partner organizations to disclose their own subcontracting partners, National NGOs such as Syria Trust can still subcontract Al-Bustan and similar entities, channeling UN funds to regime insiders.
Humanitarian operations have required massive local procurement of goods and services for international staff, providing another avenue for the regime to profit. UN agencies and international NGOs must purchase mobile phones from Syriatel, another Makhlouf company. Similarly, the government compels the UN to house its 150 international staff in the Four Seasons Hotel Damascus, which is jointly owned by the sanctioned minister of tourism and Samer Foz, a regime-allied businessman responsible for seizing displaced persons’ property under Syria’s new confiscatory Law Number 10.
The regime has profited from aid agencies by playing with exchange rates as well. Funds for programming, national salaries, and procurement of local medicines, goods, and services must be paid to the central bank in dollars at the official exchange rate, which is 20 to 25 percent lower than the black-market rate. The government pockets the difference. A conservative estimate using OCHA Financial Tracking Service data is that these manipulations have produced at least $1 billion in revenue for the regime.
The Assad regime’s use of UN entities to bypass sanctions is exemplified by the WHO’s use of donor funds to purchase blood transfusion supplies on behalf of the Syrian Ministry of Defense, which controls the national blood bank. The WHO thus effectively subsidizes the same ministry that bombs civilians, attacks hospitals, and withholds lifesaving aid in opposition-held areas, even while the Assad regime blames the sanctions rather than its own targeting of civilian infrastructure and hospitals for Syria’s public health crisis.
Damascus’ hold on UN agencies is also reflected in how they prioritize funding. In 2012 and 2013, all UN aid—$1.2 billion—went directly to Damascus. In 2014, of the total $1.2 billion in UN aid, only $6.5 million went to international agencies operating cross-border from Turkey, while more than $1 billion went to the UN agencies in Damascus. This pattern continued in 2015, when Syrian NGOs operating cross-border received less than one percent of the total UN aid budget for Syria.
The best estimate is that only between two and 18 percent of UN aid actually reaches needy Syrians. That aid, moreover, rarely goes to those most in need: the Syrians suffering in opposition-held areas, often under siege. Rather than helping at-risk civilians, the bulk of the aid has bolstered the Syrian government. The paradox and sad irony is that the driving forces behind sanctions against the Syrian government—the EU, the United States, and the United Kingdom—have also been the biggest funders of the humanitarian response that has undermined those sanctions.
If ever there were a situation in which UN agencies should break with their traditional deference to sovereignty, it is in Syria. It is time for them to reconsider their pact with the devil and examine whether their presence in Damascus is doing more harm than good.
UN agencies continue to justify their decision to work with the government on the grounds that, in purely numerical terms, most people in need live in government-controlled areas. Yet the agencies remain unable to access the people in greatest need, such as those who remain in Eastern Ghouta after the government’s takeover earlier this year.
Today, by far the biggest remaining area of need is opposition-controlled Idlib Province in northwestern Syria, home to three million civilians. Assuming that the UN Security Council renews the cross-border authorization contained in Resolution 2165, UN agencies will be permitted to reach these civilians directly from Turkey, without working through, let alone subsidizing, the Syrian government. If the agencies remain in Damascus, they will be barred from helping the civilians of Idlib as the regime and its allies proceed with their bloody campaign to retake the province.
As the war winds down and the Syrian government begins to plead for reconstruction aid, the importance of the UN agencies’ independence will only grow. If the Assad regime wants international assistance to rebuild the cities it has played a central role in destroying, it should have to do so on radically different terms, with international donors demanding sole authority to select local partners, flatly refusing to submit to the government’s methods of extracting aid money for its own purposes, and requesting an independent forensic audit to determine how the UN has spent its billion-dollar budget in Syria, following the model the Global Fund, an international financing organization.
The lesson of Syria is that the humanitarian impulse is not enough. For too long, UN agencies have escaped scrutiny by waving the flag of good intentions. But we can no longer be blind to the horrible results that those good intentions have produced in Syria. If the UN cannot radically improve the terms on which it operates in the country, it should get out, until Assad’s unspeakably brutal regime no longer imposes itself on the Syrian people.