September 27, 2023 | New York Post

How US taxpayer dollars line the pockets of Syrian despot Bashar al-Assad

September 27, 2023 | New York Post

How US taxpayer dollars line the pockets of Syrian despot Bashar al-Assad

Presidents and prime ministers descended on Manhattan the past two weeks to take part in the 78th annual session of the UN General Assembly.

Secretary-General Antonio Guterres took the stage at Turtle Bay to call out the dangers the world faces, from war and nuclear weapons to inequality and climate change.

Yet while asking world leaders to give more money to the United Nations, he remained silent about the waste, fraud and abuse that plague so many of the organization’s endeavors.

There is no better case in point than the constant flow of UN dollars to Syrian butcher Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Each July, the UN quietly releases new data on its spending habits.

What you’ll find are receipts showing UN agencies have spent $95.5 million over the past eight years to house their staff at the Four Seasons Damascus, including $14.2 million last year.

New Yorkers know good hotel rooms don’t come cheap, but the real problem in Damascus is the Four Seasons’ owners are the Assad regime itself and one of the war profiteers who manages the regime’s finances.

The hotel would likely go under if not for UN business; Damascus is not a tourist destination these days.

Spending millions at the hotel is a gift to Assad.

The UN claims keeping its staff at the Four Seasons is about keeping them safe.

Yet there has been little fighting in Damascus since 2017.

A former UN diplomat with experience in the Syrian capital told me the regime tells UN agencies it can only guarantee the safety of their staff if they stay at the Four Seasons.

And so they do.

Incidentally, the hotel is not actually entitled to call itself the Four Seasons.

The Toronto-based company that manages the global chain cut all ties to its Damascus affiliate after the Trump administration slapped sanctions on the place in 2019, citing its connections to Assad.

What makes the Four Seasons debacle especially galling is it’s been public knowledge for seven years, and the UN has done nothing about it — or the many other ways the regime siphons off aid for its own benefit.

One of the most lucrative is manipulating exchange rates.

To run massive aid programs in Syria, the UN needs to convert dollars or euros into local currency.

Since the regime has a vise grip on the money-changing business, it determines how many Syrian lira the UN gets for each dollar or euro.

The result: The UN gets a much worse rate than other customers.

One of Washington’s top experts on humanitarian aid crunched the numbers and concluded the UN lost $100 million over 18 months to this kind of rate-fixing.

A pair of British reporters first exposed the UN’s seven-figure spending at the Four Seasons and a raft of similar embarrassments, such as directing $8.5 million to so-called charities run by Assad’s wife, Asma.

There was much hand-wringing at UN headquarters, followed by lengthy deliberations that generated a new set of principles for ensuring the independence and impartiality of UN operations in Syria.

Yet as the newest spending data shows, nothing has changed.

The fiascos keep piling up.

The World Health Organization, the UN body with a habit of parroting Beijing’s talking points on COVID, had to suspend its top executive in Damascus last year amid accusations of corruption and abusing her staff.

The Associated Press reported that she plied Syrian officials with cars and gold coins and met surreptitiously with Russian military officers.

Naturally, she lived at the Four Seasons “in a spacious, multi-room suite with two washrooms and a panoramic view of the city.”

Speaking from the podium at Turtle Bay, the secretary-general declared that “the global humanitarian system is on the verge of collapse,” so member states need to step up and donate more to his organization — an apt reminder the UN isn’t wasting its own money at the Four Seasons Damascus.

It’s wasting American taxpayer dollars, British taxpayer pounds, Japanese taxpayer yen and so on.

What the United States and its allies should do is make clear to the UN they will turn off the spigot if the body doesn’t get its act together.

But the UN remains a sacred cow, so the Biden administration and other Western governments are loath to speak openly about its habitual submission to Assad’s manipulation.

After all, laying out the full truth would come uncomfortably close to an admission that Washington keeps sending billions without pausing to ask whether taxpayer dollars are lining Assad’s pockets.

David Adesnik is a senior fellow and director of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He is working on a co-authored book about the conflict between Israel and Iran. Follow him on X @adesnik. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


International Organizations Syria