UNHCR on aid to Syria: what’s important is to deliver

In an exclusive interview with The National, Amin Awad explains the delivery of aid to areas controlled by the Syrian president

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A senior humanitarian official on Sunday dismissed criticism that United Nations assistance to Syria is helping prop up the Damascus regime, saying that realism and the need to help those affected by the civil war shape the aid operations, not who is in power in a particular country.

Amin Awad, director of the Middle East and North Africa bureau at the UN High Commissioner for Refugees could not rule out UNHCR awarding contracts to close associates of President Bashar Al Assad.

Mr Awad took this stance despite criticism by independent academics that large sums had gone to Mr Assad’s innermost circle and their business networks, as the regime prevents aid from reaching parts of the population it regards as disloyal, having used siege warfare and bombing of residential areas to pacify them.

Amin Awad, UNHCR Bureau director for the Middle East and North Africa, gives an interview in Dubai on March 22, 2017. (Photo by NEZAR BALOUT / AFP)
Amin Awad, UNHCR Bureau director for the Middle East and North Africa, gives an interview in Dubai on March 22, 2017. AFP

"I reject the argument that the UN is working with cronies of one regime or another," Mr Awad told The National in an interview in Dubai.

“For us it is secondary who is who. I do not have a mechanism where we comb every single contract to see do you have one, 10 or 90 per cent connection with the regime or not. We have to be realistic.”

In a rare instance in which operational details on UN activities in Syria were revealed, a 2016 report by Dr Reinoud Leenders, then of King’s College London, said the UNHCR gave more than $7.7 million (Dh28.3m) to the Syria Trust charity, headed by Mr Assad’s wife, Asma, who is on US and EU sanctions lists.

The report, published in collaboration with the Guardian newspaper, said other UN agencies provided aid to an outfit run by a billionaire cousin of Mr Assad and government entities linked to the defence and agricultural ministries, at a time when the regime was mounting scorched earth offensives and disappearing thousands of political prisoners into its dungeons.

UN sources and European diplomats say pro-Assad voices across several UN agencies have helped keep the focus on the legality of UN operations, rather than adherence to values. These officials got the upper hand partly because criticism of the UN within the EU is mostly taboo, one European diplomat said. Questioning UN operations in Syria “went nowhere” in Brussels, as well as in Berlin, which is one of the largest contributors to the UN’s Syria operations, the diplomat said.

If there are business people who have been there for a long time, whether they are part of a regime or not you cannot keep combing who is who. You are in a country and you have to deliver.

In a sign of the strength of the Assad sympathisers, the New Humanitarian, a news service specialising in crisis news, said UN relief officials covering Syria ignored principal recommendations of a 2017 review of operating principles by Martin Griffiths, the current UN envoy to Yemen.

Annie Sparrow, an assistant professor at Icahn School of Medicine in New York City, wrote in Foreign Policy magazine last year that UN agencies have knowingly allowed the Assad regime to use donor funds to skirt EU and US sanctions and subsidise its war effort, although "the bulk of these billions in diverted funds are from the same Western governments that imposed the sanctions."

Analysis by the Syria Report, an economic and business newsletter, shows that the UN provided $1 billion in aid to areas controlled by the Assad government in 2018. In comparison, the actual budget spending of the Assad government was about $4 billion that year, indicating the significance of the UN flows to the regime, said the newsletter’s editor, Jihad Yazigi.

Mr Awad did not say how much the UNHCR spends in regime areas but said contracts there cover “rehabilitation” projects such as sanitation and schools, and are subject “to very fair, transparent bidding procedures as prescribed by the UN in New York.”

Before the civil war, a complex web of frontmen and corporate facades ensured that almost every significant business activity and cash source was ultimately channelled to regime associates, according to banking and business sources who studied the inner workings of the regime.

Veteran Syrian economist Aref Dalila termed the system as "regime expropriation of Syria's sovereign resources". Mr Dalila was jailed before the 2011 revolt for seven years for criticising cellular communication and other monopolies awarded to Assad's cousin's Rami Makhlouf, whom the Financial Times estimated as controlling as much as 60 per cent of the Syrian economy by the time the revolt broke out.

During the ensuing civil war, the elite upgraded their business model to receive UN aid and rebuilding projects, sources say. New corporate structures and shell companies were set up to obscure ownership and blur the lines between charities and businesses.

Among this hybrid commercial-charity structure is Ramak for Humanitarian and Development Projects, which is owned by Mr Makhlouf.

Under the Ramak structure is Al Bustan Association, which finances thousands of loyalist militiamen. The Guardian reported that Al Bustan Association received $268,000 in 2015 from the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund – UNICEF –) to provide education and basic services in regime areas.

While tracing UN funding in Syria is difficult, due to the labyrinth of companies linked to those at the very top, regional businessmen with contacts in Syria say the money has bolstered the networks of the Assad and Makhlouf families.

Mr Awad said it was not the job of the UNHCR to reform the political systems it works within.

“If there are business people who have been there for a long time, whether they are part of a regime or not you cannot keep combing who is who,” he said. “You are in a country and you have to deliver.”