Most notably, the regime manipulated the delivery of humanitarian aid to force opposition-held areas into submission through the notorious “reconciliation agreements” with the help of its Russian and Iranian allies. Russian carpet bombing of civilian areas intensified and besieged areas were starved; desperate civilians were offered humanitarian aid if they submitted to the regime and accepted “reconciliation”. According to Mouayad Albouni and Maxwell Gardiner of the Centre for Operational Analysis and Research, and the former US Special Envoy for Syria, James Jeffrey :
The stark nature of the Syrian regime’s chokehold on humanitarian aid delivery is a central focus of discussions on delivering cross-border aid to millions of displaced Syrians in the North at the UN Security Council (UNSC), most recently in July 2021. Russia has used its veto power to hold the UNSC to ransom and force them into systematically reducing the number of crossings through which aid is delivered to some 4 million Syrians crammed into Idlib. It insists that the aid is delivered through Damascus to give the regime complete control over the flow of humanitarian aid, with the aim of forcing the last opposition-held enclave in the northwest of the country into submission, while increasing its profits from the associated corruption and appropriation of aid distribution.
This report examines the mechanics of the methods the Syrian regime uses to control and direct the work of humanitarian aid agencies, including the UN and other international aid organisations, as well as myriad Syrian organisations that are often directly established by the regime’s institutions or proxies. It is based on interviews with 45 employees of 29 organisations operating in Assad-held Syria. Mostly Syrians and several internationals, these individuals work in international aid organisations, UN agencies, and Syrian humanitarian and civil society organisations (CSOs). In most cases, their motive for participating in the study was to change the status quo in which the Syrian regime either directly or indirectly, but always decisively, interferes in the work of these organisations, making them yet another weapon in its arsenal directed against the Syrian people.
Regime interference ranges from directly influencing the aid distribution, deciding who will (and who will not) be the beneficiaries of various projects; to appointing people close to the regime to crucial positions of influence in these organisations to control and monitor their work; to directly appropriating aid to the regime’s military and militias, sometimes in larger percentages than what reaches the intended beneficiaries. The acceptance of such interference permeates all aid organisations, international and Syrian; there is now a dangerous symbiosis between these organisations and the regime’s institutions. Finally, most of the participants firmly believe that the Syrian regime is itself involved in creating many CSOs that later appear in political negotiations as representatives of “independent” civil society.
These findings must inform the policies of the largest donors of humanitarian aid to Syria, primarily the US and the European Union. There must be an independent, objective audit of how their funds are being used by the UN agencies and international and Syrian organisations working on the ground to prevent aid manipulation and interference by the Syrian regime in furtherance of its repressive, criminal agenda. These findings must inform discussions on how to end Russia’s blackmail in the UNSC regarding cross-border aid and adopt alternative approaches to ensure that aid is deliver legally to the people without UNSC approval or regime interference. A comprehensive review of the policies and practises of UN agencies involved in humanitarian aid distribution in Syria is needed before any plans are developed for the organised, safe, voluntary and dignified return of displaced Syrians following a comprehensive political solution with robust international guarantees. It is necessary to ensure humanitarian operations are conducted in line with the humanitarian principles and work that goes beyond life-saving aid is in line with the 2018 UN Principles and Parameters for UN assistance across Syria. Increased monitoring of implementation is needed and cannot come too soon. This would urgently require an increased focus on the ongoing regional dialogue to ensure donor red-lines and basic operational standards are respected by UN agencies operating inside Syria, especially in regime-controlled areas. Furthermore, in their discussions, the UN Country Team and donors should take seriously evidence and recommendations from external stakeholders, such as the information contained in this report.
The policies and practices described in this report, and the Syrian regime’s weaponisation of aid and capture of civil society, must not be normalised if there is to be hope of any long-term solution and stability. Ultimately, there must be accountability for corruption and using aid funds to finance the Syrian regime’s war economy. This report is designed to contribute to such policy changes.