The U.N.’s Deal With the Devil

The United Nations needs to work with President Bashar al-Assad's regime to provide aid to the Syrian people. But is it inadvertently funding the government's killing machine?


"Is it logical to provide aid to a regime responsible for destroying cities, bombing hospitals and bakeries and displacing population, so it can fix the dire situation it had created!"

This was what Syria’s National Coalition, the principal umbrella group of the Syrian opposition, wanted to know. The coalition was sounding the alarm about a U.N. plan, published Dec. 19, to launch a half-billion-dollar assistance program in Syria, in cooperation with President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The news spread like wildfire among outraged anti-Assad activists, who feared that the funds would be diverted to fund the regime’s war effort. Under the Twitter hashtag #UNpaysAssad, people implored the world body to reconsider.

Here’s what really happened. The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) worked out how much money U.N. agencies would need to help Syrians for the first half of 2013. The total was just under $520 million, with the U.N. World Food Program asking for the largest share ($139 million). UNHCR (the U.N. refugee agency), the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, and UNICEF followed close behind.

"The Syrian government is trying to get some of that money directly to its agencies," says National Coalition spokesman Khalid Saleh. "They’re asking for the [Syrian] deputy minister of foreign affairs to oversee the distribution."

Indeed, UNOCHA’s Humanitarian Assistance Response Plan (HARP) includes some pretty reverent language. "All humanitarian assistance is, and will continue to be, delivered with full respect to the sovereignty of the Syrian Arab Republic during the implementation of this Response Plan," it asserts.

But does that mean Assad will get his hands on half a billion dollars? Almost certainly not.

Saleh admits that though the United Nations has been providing aid in Syria for two years, it’s unlikely the Syrian government has seen any of that cash. "I don’t think there have been any direct funds transfers between the U.N. and the Assad regime," he says. "But there are some programs that operate in Damascus where they would not allow them to operate freely."

It all comes down to the way that aid is distributed in Syria. International bodies rely on local partner agencies to deliver food and supplies to those in need. U.N. agencies pick Syrian NGOs with on-the-ground knowledge to get into the places they can’t. The trouble is that many believe — with some justification — that there is no such thing as a true nongovernmental organization in Syria.

"[NGOs’] programs are controlled by Assad," explains Saleh. "They can’t operate unless they have permission, and [the regime] has its own men within these programs. How can we be sure that the assistance from these programs will get into the hands of Syrians?"

The Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) is the U.N. agencies’ primary partner in Syria, and it is the one that most frequently comes in for criticism for alleged links to the government. John Ging, UNOCHA’s operations director, has just returned from Syria, where he spent time in both government-controlled areas and rebel-held zones. He said in a Jan. 28 news conference that SARC volunteers are universally respected: "What was reassuring for us to see was how [SARC volunteers were] greeted and regarded in the opposition-controlled areas. This of course is evidence for us that they are doing a job and doing it with integrity."

Ging insisted that the United Nations isn’t in the business of giving handouts to the Assad regime. "Yes, we’re operating from government-controlled areas, but we’re not working for the government," he said. "Not a dollar is given directly to the government."

Each U.N. agency is responsible for sending its own international staff into Syria to verify that the aid distributed by SARC gets where it is supposed to be. And the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) monitors government interference in SARC’s leadership.

But it’s not just the U.N. agencies’ choice of local partners that concerns the National Coalition. The group is worried that aid just isn’t getting through, held up by fighting in the most at-risk areas. "The U.N. said three or four weeks ago that there are some issues with the distribution of some of its assistance to Syrians in areas controlled by the Assad regime," Saleh says.

The World Food Program (WFP) complained in early January that the fighting and a lack of fuel were preventing the WFP and its partners from reaching many Syrians in need. Ging went further, saying that he wasn’t satisfied with the freedom of movement U.N. agencies are being given by the regime. "They have a responsibility to facilitate and support our humanitarian access under international humanitarian law," he said.

The other problem is that the humanitarian crisis is even more acute in the opposition-controlled areas — and there, the United Nations faces even greater challenges in delivering aid. The Nobel Peace Prize-winning NGO Doctors Without Borders said in a Jan. 29 statement that the aid system "is unable to address the worsening living conditions facing people inside Syria," because opposition areas only receive a "tiny share" of resources.

Ging told a different story, maintaining that 48 percent of the United Nations’ food assistance is already going into disputed and opposition-held areas. "These are the areas where some of the most acute needs are," he said, "the real hot areas where the conflict is raging."

Just as the United Nations has to talk to the regime to be allowed to work in government-held areas, it also has to get permission from the rebels. The ICRC maintains an index of armed groups with which it must deal — the index reportedly includes around 1,000 such militias. "Negotiations have to take place with all sorts of players on the ground, and not just the government," says Simon Ingram, regional chief of communication for UNICEF’s Middle East office.

The HARP is the United Nations’ way into the parts of Syria that Assad controls. Without the assistance plan, it can’t work there. Some in the anti-Assad opposition are accusing the United Nations of indirect participation in the crimes of the Assad regime. But tearing up the agreement is tantamount to calling for the withdrawal of UNICEF and all other U.N. agencies providing aid in Syria.

"What many people don’t realize is that we have continued operations throughout this incredibly difficult period," Ingram told me. "In December, we managed, along with our partners, to implement a very successful immunization campaign that reached well over a million children. So we have to measure the challenges against successes like that."

And that’s just one example. UNHCR provided over 350,000 Syrians with non-food assistance in 2012. The WFP is almost doubling its reach, providing aid to 2.5 million people this year.

But the National Coalition isn’t satisfied. It believes that its new Aid Coordination Unit (ACU) can do a better job than the United Nations’ local partners — at least in areas where the Assad regime has lost control. The ACU aims to fill the role now being played by the United Nations’ current, government-approved local partners: It studies the needs of those still inside Syria and presents those findings to the international community. It will then act as a clearinghouse, channeling funds from international donors directly into liberated areas of Syria.

"In rebel-controlled areas, we’ve set up local councils to govern themselves," says Saleh. "We’re working very closely with these agencies to try to get some aid to flow to them. World governments and NGOs have started to do that over the last couple of months."

Saleh’s words reflect a sentiment shared by many Syrians abroad. There is a perception that U.N. agencies are too big, too bureaucratic, and too slow to get emergency aid to the people who need it. Add to this two years of justifiable anger at the U.N. Security Council’s political paralysis on Syria, and it’s easy to see why many Syrian donors prefer to use informal networks rather than donating to U.N. appeals.

"The General Assembly of the U.N. has held [the Assad regime] responsible for all the crimes that they have committed," says Saleh. "But on the other hand, they work with the regime, so they’re sending a very mixed signal to the world."

But conflating the U.N.’s political fecklessness on Syria with its admirable humanitarian efforts is misleading. More serious are the National Coalition’s fears that the aid could be redirected by the regime for its own aims.

"Many people have told us that the government takes the aid and they sell it — sometimes they sell it to the Syrian people," says Saleh. "We cannot verify that because there’s a lack of clarity in terms of the distribution in the areas that are controlled by Assad."

UNICEF admits that monitoring its local partners is difficult, but it is sending more international staff to help track what goes where. "Our assistance to [local partners] actually consists of physical supplies," says Ingram, "so it isn’t putting cash in their back pocket."

Only nine international NGOs are working in Syria at the moment — the country needs their conflict experience, in tandem with the knowledge that their local partners and the National Coalition can provide. Pulling out U.N. agencies just to score political points would hurt millions of Syrians. It’s also a good sign that the United Nations is now talking to the ACU about how they can work together.

U.N. agencies have undoubtedly saved lives in Syria. They are held back, not just by the fighting and regime restrictions, but by a shocking lack of cash. Despite big-budget promises by Arab states to fully fund the U.N. plan at the Jan. 30 Kuwait pledging conference, it is currently less than 10 percent funded. Last year’s plan received less than two-thirds of the funds the United Nations said it needed.

Even if all that money does come in, the current plan is only designed to get Syria through the end of June — who knows what resources it will need after that. When that time comes, the arguments and the appeals for cash will begin again in earnest. Spreading rumors about the United Nations’ credibility is going to make that task even harder.

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