August 9, 2021 | War on the Rocks

The Road To Damascus Is Paved With Good Intentions

August 9, 2021 | War on the Rocks

The Road To Damascus Is Paved With Good Intentions

Excerpt

Carsten Wieland, Syria and the Neutrality Trap: The Dilemmas of Delivering Humanitarian Aid through Violent Regimes (Bloomsbury, 2021)

Bashar al Assad relied on Russian warplanes to ensure his survival on the battlefield. But his regime also relied on U.N. humanitarian aid to avoid a complete financial collapse. While the United States and the European Union maintain sanctions on Damascus, they also donate billions each year to fund the United Nations’ humanitarian operations, despite knowing that much of it will be expropriated to subsidize the regime. This unusual arrangement has persisted for a decade, yet neither Washington nor Brussels has made more than a token effort to protect U.N. aid from Assad’s depredations.

Rather than a scandal, this state of affairs is an open secret. In 2013, after returning from Damascus, a senior U.N. official published a detailed account of the many ways the Assad regime was co-opting humanitarian efforts. He reported, “In government-controlled parts of Syria, what, where and to whom to distribute aid, and even staff recruitment, have to be negotiated and are sometimes dictated.” Periodically, journalists and human rights advocates have treated the situation as a cause for outrage. In 2016, the Guardian reported that the United Nations spent tens of millions of dollars per year to procure goods and services from companies under the regime’s control. This included $9.3 million dollars to house U.N. staff at the Four Seasons Damascus, which is owned in part by the E.U.-sanctioned Syrian Ministry of Tourism.

Lengthy reports that document the diversion of U.N. aid have appeared courtesy of Physicians for Human RightsThe Syria CampaignChatham HouseHuman Rights Watch, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Their collective advice is that the time has come for the United Nations to stand firm when negotiating the conditions of aid delivery with Damascus. The reports also advise Western donors to set clear expectations for U.N. reform and carry out meaningful oversight of the operations they fund. If this advice has had an impact, it is barely perceptible. So far, neither the United Nations nor its donors appear to consider the issue a priority.

David Adesnik is a senior fellow and director of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. His research focuses on human rights, humanitarian aid, sanctions, and illicit finance in Syria. For two years, he served as deputy director for Joint Data Support at the U.S. Department of Defense, where he focused on the modeling and simulation of irregular warfare and counterinsurgency. Follow him on Twitter @adesnik. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.

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Issues:

International Organizations Sanctions and Illicit Finance Syria