“The UN has awarded contracts worth tens of millions of dollars to people closely associated with the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, as part of an aid program that critics fear is increasingly at the whim of the government in Damascus,” reported the UK Guardian on Monday.
It is the latest embarrassment for a “world order” that has conspicuously failed to remove Assad from power for violating its most serious rules, including torture, slaughtering civilians, and using weapons of mass destruction.
According to the Guardian, the United Nations relief mission to Syria has awarded sizable contracts to businessmen who are under U.S. and European Union sanctions, including charities set up by Assad’s wife Asma and close cousin Rami Makhlouf. Mrs. Assad’s charity raked in a cool $8.5 million from UN agencies.
The Guardian found $13 million in payments to the Syrian government’s agriculture ministries, plus $4 million to the state-owned fuel supplier, both of which are currently under European Union sanction. $5 million has gone to a blood bank directly controlled by the Syrian military, even though some of the donors are governments with strict economic sanctions against Assad’s regime.
The Guardian further accused UN agencies of dealing with at least 258 private Syrian companies, many of them linked to Assad or his close associates. United Nations personnel even stay at a hotel partially owned by the Syrian government when they visit Damascus.
Critics say UN aid has been prioritized in areas held by the Syrian government, effectively turning the aid mission into a weapon in Assad’s arsenal. “More than 50 humanitarian, human rights and civil society groups back a report which said the UN had given in to demands not to help rebel-held areas, contributing to the death of thousands of civilians,” the Guardian writes.
UN officials counter that they have little choice but to deal with Assad and his cronies, since they control so much of Syria’s industry and infrastructure. That partially regime-owned hotel in Damascus, for example, is said to be the only safe place for visiting officials to stay. If humanitarian aid is not delivered by Assad’s stooges, then none of the suffering civilians in Syria will be helped. Assad has reportedly taken the entire civilian population hostage by threatening to kick the UN out of the country, if they don’t play ball with his regime.
Another disturbing detail from the Guardian report is that some international aid operations have been compromised even worse than the United Nations:
A senior member of the humanitarian community who leaked information to the Guardian said: “There are obviously questions over some of these UN procurements.
“But at least the UN publishes the names of their suppliers. Many of the international NGOs won’t even do that. Very limited transparency is a problem that affects the whole aid effort in Syria. Given that the aid industry has been talking [about] the need for more transparency for decades, it’s high time we had proper independent scrutiny of where this money is going and how it is being spent.”
The Washington Post reported in July that the U.S. government has frozen over $200 million in contracts, fearing that “bad characters have taken advantage of the complex situation for personal gain, ultimately denying Syrian people the food, clothing, health care and other aid they urgently need,” as USAID Inspector General Ann Calvaresi Barr told the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
It’s not clear that even this grim estimate accounts for the kind of official corruption the UK Guardian described because much of what the Washington Post describes consists of more prosaic scams and gangster rackets. For example, there is said to be a “mafia” of suppliers in southern Turkey rigging bids and delivering substandard humanitarian goods.
The Post noted that $5.5 billion from the United States makes it the “leading humanitarian donor in Syria,” but most of that money has been “distributed through the United Nations and a host of partner organizations” since the U.S. no longer has an embassy in Damascus.
Another $439 million in humanitarian funding for Syria was announced by Secretary of State John Kerry last month, despite the fact that the Government Accountability Office recently issued a report charging that USAID and the State Department don’t have “any inkling” of how much money they’ve already lost.