Syrian opposition says UN aid programme will bankroll Al Assad

Opposition factions say the plan puts the UN openly on the side of the authorities, footing reconstruction bills for damage done by government forces trying to suppress a revolution. Phil Sands reports from Damascus

Damascus // A multi-million dollar emergency aid programme for Syria, to be funded by the United Nations and implemented in association with the Syrian government, has drawn heavy criticism from the opposition, which accuses the UN of bankrolling president Bashar Al Assad.

The US$519 million (Dh1.9 billion) Humanitarian Assistance Response Plan (Harp), unveiled last week, aims to deliver what the UN says are life-saving food, water and medical supplies to areas affected by the deepening conflict.

Although designed to mitigate the dire situation facing millions of Syrians displaced from their homes and left without shelter, food, work or medical care, the programme is highly controversial.

It was drawn up in close cooperation with the Syrian authorities and the document makes clear Syria's foreign ministry and other government departments will have a leadership role, helping to determine where the aid will go.

Relief funds will be channelled through government-approved organisations working inside Syria, including the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.

The Harp proposal document refers to the conflict ravaging the country as "the events", a term used by Syrian state media. It carefully avoids apportioning blame for the unfolding humanitarian disaster and makes no reference to military operations, rebel groups, protests or the origins of the crisis.

Opposition factions say the plan puts the UN openly on the side of the authorities, footing reconstruction bills for damage done by government forces trying to suppress a revolution.

"I'm utterly disgusted by it, I cannot believe the UN is allowing its aid to be associated with the regime, let alone giving the regime a supervisory role in how and where this money is spent," said an opposition activist from Homs. The central Syrian city is among the areas hit hardest by government efforts to crush the revolt that began in March 2011.

"Regime forces destroy the country and the UN will help them clean up their mess," he said.

A Damascus-based activist who works with various opposition factions said the UN had, so far, been "useless" and an "irrelevance" in helping the worst-hit areas of the city, those held by rebels.

"The most effective aid is not coming from these big, bureaucratic aid organisations, it comes from local donations and local activists who take huge risks to help people," he said. "I've given up asking the UN to help, it's a waste of breath."

On Friday, the Local Coordination Committees, a network of grassroots activists, said the proposed aid amounted to "blatant support for the regime to continue its savage crimes to repress the Syrian revolution".

The ministry of health is one of the government departments in line to receive aid. Opposition activists, and human rights groups, say state-run hospitals have been used to detain and torture opponents of the regime, something government officials deny.

On Tuesday, John Ging, the UN humanitarian operations director, said no relief money would be given directly to the Syrian government and insisted it would be distributed "with integrity, neutrality and on the basis of need".

However, speaking on condition of anonymity from Lebanon, a senior western aid official admitted those involved in relief efforts struggled over the ethical problems involved in working on Syria.

"I wrestle with this question every day," the official said. "By getting aid through we are, in a way, helping the government - it claims the credit for our work and as far as I'm concerned the regime is to blame for this disaster.

"On the other hand, if we have to play that game to get food to someone who is hungry or a blanket to someone who is cold, then maybe it's the right thing to do," the official said.

"I think the calculation has been made that, on balance, the ends justify the means, that we cannot just leave people to suffer to make a political point."

Another aid worker now involved with Syria relief said not all relief supplies would remain under strict government supervision.

"The reality is that aid supplies are stolen all the time, some by the regime, some by the rebels, although no one in the aid community likes to talk about that," he said.

"It's far from a perfect way of distributing supplies to both sides but under the circumstances it's better than nothing," he said.

However he also criticised international aid organisations, saying they had been cowed by the Syrian authorities' insistence that relief efforts must not come at the expensive of national sovereignty.

"Aid agencies are worried that if they push too hard for independence in their work they will be kicked out of Damascus; for that reason they are not really working in rebel-held areas - they don't want to rock the boat and lose what limited access they do have," he said.

France is hosting a meeting of Syrian anti-regime groups tomorrow, with opposition leaders hoping to boost financia support for rebel-held areas. And on Wednesday, a UN-backed donor meeting in Kuwait will try to raise more funds for Syrian aid, though it was unclear how these would be allocated.

While the Harp programme has provoked outrage among the opposition, at least some of the ordinary Syrians trying to survive a harsh winter say they welcome help from any quarter.

A mother of three from the Damascus suburb of Spaina, an area to the south of the capital where rebels and regime forces have been fighting, said she dreamed of receiving aid.

"We have no jobs, no money, we can't afford food and heating so if anyone helps us in any way we're grateful, I don't care who they are," she said.