UK cuts cash aid to northeast Syria, citing fear of funding ISIS

International NGOs working in the region say the decision is 'impossible to explain or justify'

A woman displaced from Syria's eastern Deir Ezzor province,  carries a box in al-Hol camp for displaced people, in al-Hasakeh governorate in northeastern Syria on April 18, 2019.  Dislodged in a final offensive by a Kurdish-led ground force and coalition air strikes, thousands of wives and children of IS fighters have flooded in from a string of Syrian villages south of the al-Hol camp in recent months.
Among the hordes of Syrians and Iraqis, some 9,000 foreigners are held in a fenced section of the encampment, under the watch of Kurdish forces. / AFP / Delil SOULEIMAN
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Aid organisations working in Syria say they are “extremely shocked” after the UK cancelled millions of dollars in cash assistance to the northeast of the country out of concern that money could be diverted to ISIS.

"We have suspended the use of UK aid through cash transfers in northeast Syria following the territorial defeat of Daesh," a spokesperson for the UK's Department for International Development (DFID) told The National, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS. "This is a precautionary measure due to the risks associated with the dispersal of Daesh members. UK aid will still give food, shelter and healthcare to those people in Syria in desperate need."

A group of international NGOs working in Syria described the decision as "politically driven" and a "hasty reactionary stance". The cutting of cash distributions will negatively affect already vulnerable populations and was "disappointing and impossible to explain or justify" to local actors, the group of 58 NGOs said in a letter to the department obtained by The National.

DFID has budgeted £152 million (Dh756 m) for support to Syria in its 2019/2020 budget, including £40 m (DH191 m) to northeast Syria. Up to $5 m (Dh18 m) of this is earmarked for cash assistance and could be cut, one aid worker told The National. Affected NGOs include The International Rescue Committee, Mercy Corps, and Care International.

Historically much aid has been distributed as in-kind assistance such as food, clothing, or shelter kits. But in the last decade many aid agencies have shifted towards paying cash to those in need, citing its greater efficiency, lower implementation costs and its ability to preserve the dignity and autonomy of recipients.

"One of the big benefits of giving cash and vouchers rather than food parcels is the incredible value for money that can be achieved," DFID said last year in a press release. "Cash transfers deliver better value for money for UK taxpayers and better support the world's poorest people who often rely on our help to stay alive."

But the provision of aid in northeast Syria has become politically charged in recent months, given the large numbers of ISIS supporters who have recently arrived in displacement camps.

Since the start of the year some 60,000 people have fled the last ISIS-held territory in the country, which only fell to US-backed Syrian forces last month. The vast majority have been taken to the overcrowded  Al Hol camp, where some of the group’s most hardened supporters remain committed to the idea of the caliphate declared by Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi in 2014.

In the UK in particular, public attention on unrepentant ISIS members, including Bethnal Green teenager Shamima Begum, has made the government wary of providing assistance to such groups. This is "what set off this public backlash and changed UK policy in Syria," said Fe Kagahastian, a cash and markets specialist deployed to the Syria response by NORCAP-CashCap, an expert deployment roster headquartered in Oslo, Norway.

"The media focus on one Daesh-affiliated woman [Ms Begum] effectively strips tens of thousands of Syrians – who are displaced after fleeing ISIS violence to begin with – of a more dignified form of assistance," she told The National.

DFID’s decision to cut cash assistance to northeast Syria was a “precautionary measure”, it told aid agencies, adding that it was not aware of any money actually being diverted towards ISIS.

Cash-for-work payments and disbursements to vulnerable families typically amount to about $120 (Dh478) per month and are unlikely to form a meaningful source of funding for ISIS, even if part of it were diverted to the group, aid workers say.

Since its territorial defeat, ISIS has continued a low-level insurgency across parts of Syria and Iraq. During its retreat, ISIS is believed to have cached up to $400 m to continue operations, smuggling cash out of Iraq and Syria and investing in legitimate local businesses.

Cash distributions to help families buy food and other life-saving items cannot be quickly or easily replaced with alternatives, aid workers say. "We can't just switch to other modalities; this decision by DFID represents people missing out on assistance," an NGO worker in northeast Syria told The National, speaking anonymously because they were not authorised to brief the media.

Cutting cash distributions also has negative flow on affects on the market, said Ms Kagahastian. "The small shopkeepers, traders, bakers, water and fuel suppliers, transportation service providers are also now at risk of losing their businesses as displaced Syrians lose their purchasing power."

In Raqqa, cash for work schemes have been critical to the restoration of services in the city, after it was heavily damaged in fighting to drive out ISIS. NGOs working in the region now fear that should other donors decide to restrict cash assistance, such critical stabilisation efforts will stop.

“DFID’s decision to ban cash assistance in northeast Syria will deprive tens of thousands of Syrians of existing and planned assistance,” the group of NGOs wrote to other foreign donors. “Suddenly stopping this essential life-saving and dignity sustaining programming would have both immediate and long-lasting implications.”