Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 19 October 2019

The murky links between Syrian war crimes and international aid

The nation's reconstruction should be tied to progress on clear, transparent metrics, such as free local and then national elections

Syrian Kurdish boys in Kobani, near Aleppo in northern Syria. Ahmed Mardnli / EPA
Syrian Kurdish boys in Kobani, near Aleppo in northern Syria. Ahmed Mardnli / EPA

Siege warfare was always one of the cruellest aspects of the conflict in Syria. At one point, more than a million civilians were living in besieged or so-called hard-to-reach areas, cut off from crucial humanitarian supplies – food, baby formula, medical equipment – by military blockades, the vast majority of which were orchestrated by the Syrian government.

I interviewed civilians living under siege in Aleppo, the suburbs of Damascus, the Yarmouk refugee camp, and Madaya, a town near the Lebanese border besieged by Hezbollah. All described harrowing stories of survival – eating leaves and grass, boiling water with spices to make soup, surviving on less than one meal every day, and children dying of malnourishment.

Often, these sieges were conducted a few miles away from UN and humanitarian organisation headquarters in Damascus. Security Council resolutions calling for speedy aid delivery to besieged areas were routinely ignored by the Syrian regime, and aid officials were reduced to presenting themselves as supplicants to Bashar Al Assad’s acolytes, begging for safe passage – a request that was sometimes granted but frequently ignored.

Nevertheless, the UN and other humanitarian bodies maintained a presence in Damascus. Their argument has been that whatever benefit they can offer any accessible civilian is worth the price of admission. However, the findings of a new report by Human Rights Watch raises new questions about the role that humanitarian agencies have played in Syria and how, at times, they have even enabled abuses.

The report states that the Assad regime diverted humanitarian aid and reconstruction funds, using them to fund its campaign of violence against its own people. It adds that aid organisations, which need express government permission to operate and, as a result, have little leverage with the regime, risk becoming accomplices in the Assad regime’s violations of human rights.

The findings of the report are not surprising or new. News outlets have for years reported on how the regime uses UN programmes and other humanitarian aid to further its own political goals and enrich its cronies. A 2016 investigation by the Guardian newspaper found that the UN paid tens of millions of dollars in contracts to charities and government agencies in Syria that are linked to Al Assad and his family, including businessmen who are under US and EU sanctions.

These findings should prompt soul-searching among the humanitarian aid community, as well as a broader debate on the right way to fund reconstruction efforts in Syria. Such a conversation is particularly urgent now, because the military conflict has largely been won – the Assad regime has wrestled back the vast majority of Syria, with the help of Iran and Russia, neither of which are willing to foot the hundreds of billions of dollars needed to rebuild the country after eight years of civil war.

Humanitarian aid has been repurposed and exploited repeatedly by the Syrian government, from barring and confiscating aid supplies to besieged communities to sponsoring smaller-scale theft and resale schemes. Forced to operate in a tightly controlled space, under government tutelage, humanitarian agencies essentially allowed a criminal regime with a horrendous record of war crimes and crimes against humanity to profit in exchange for the ability to reach some civilians in desperate need.

The regime was also able to demonstrate that the UN was powerless to help civilians by forcing top officials to beg for access that is meant to be guaranteed, then often turning them away. The optics were telling and exposed the international community as woefully ineffectual.

On the rebel side, hundreds of millions of dollars flowed into poorly conceived military, political and humanitarian programmes that provided much-needed aid, but also fuelled a war economy that encouraged corruption and created perverse incentives in communities that had selflessly risen up to overthrow the Assad regime.

Reconstruction aid remains the only point of leverage that western powers and Gulf states still have over Al Assad and his allies. So far, sanctions that were imposed on the regime and its top acolytes have not been lifted, and the European Union has tied future reconstruction aid to undefined progress towards a political settlement.

That is not good enough. The regime is unlikely to change its behaviour and will likely continue to use any reconstruction aid to enrich and reward those who fought loyally by its side, while dispossessing communities that revolted against it. This will continue to fuel instability in the long-term, as well as rewarding those who helped destabilise Syria and turned it into a failed state.

Instead, reconstruction aid should be tied to progress on clear, transparent metrics, such as free local and then national elections, the release of detainees, and pledges to rebuild communities destroyed by the regime’s scorched earth campaigns, with the oversight to implement such promises that would snap back sanctions if they are violated.

Many European powers, fearful of the populism and nationalism that have swept their societies, want to send refugees back home – a prospect that is within reach, if Syria looks like a stable, functioning country. Such a policy misses the mark. Without justice and real reform, Syria cannot be stable for long, even if the regime has won for now.

Updated: July 3, 2019 04:46 PM

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