“Fear of terrorism”… “Pretext” to reduce financial support for civil projects
Enab Baladi’s Investigation Team
Nour Dalati | Reham al-Assaad | Hala Ibrahim | Dia Odeh
Police officer Hassan Ali Younes needs $ 150 (71,000 Syrian liras) per month to cover the basic needs of his seven-member family. However, he does not earn this amount, he says, and rather depends on the work of his young son in a tile factory in their hometown Hass, in the countryside of Idlib.
“We used to get a monthly salary that covers our living needs in light of the increasing prices, but after the salary’s suspension, the debts have started accumulating on us,” says Hassan to Enab Baladi, describing his family’s living conditions as “below zero.”
Hassan was one of 3,000 officers of the Free Police who were affected as a result of a reduction in support granted to the police authority, under a British government decision at the end of last year following an investigation published by the BBC, in which it said that foreign financial support “was being granted to extremists in Syria.”
Hassan, a dissident police officer from the regime, added to Enab Baladi: “I have not done any job before and I devoted my time to working for the Free Police and to serve our citizens.” As he is not good at any other profession, according to him, he faced many difficulties after the suspension of his salary.
“Lack of business opportunities, abundant labor force, and increasing unemployment in the opposition-controlled areas” have motivated Hassan to hold on to his work despite not being paid. He also has a great passion for “resolving citizens’ issues, working on providing services and ensuring their welfare.” However, he does not rule out looking for another job in case the financial support’s suspension continued.
The British government has taken many measures following the BBC’s investigation that most of which negatively affected the financial support of the Free Police. The British government lifted the ban on the financial support for the police authority at the beginning of this year, but later, in May, it informed the Free Police about the “suspension of the financial support,” according to Col. Adeeb al-Shallaf, Head of Aleppo Free Police, in a previous interview with Enab Baladi.
The announcement put the Free Police “into a debate with British and US officials, according to al-Shallaf, which led to a three-month extension of the financial support. By August, the British government announced the suspension of the financial support for some aid programs in the opposition-controlled areas in Syria, including those dedicated for the Free Police.
A spokeswoman for the British government later told Reuters in an online statement: “After the situation on the ground in some areas has become increasingly difficult, we have reduced support for some of our non-human programs.” Nevertheless, the first spark of the financial support suspension was linked to fears of “involvement in terrorism.”
The Free Police Authority, which was established at the end of 2012 in an attempt to control security in areas out of the Syrian regime’s control, was not the only affected side by the policies of reducing financial support linked to terrorism-related concerns, or those using these concerns as a pretext to justify the reduction of the financial support.
Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), along with health facilities in the countryside of Hama, local councils in Idlib, and other civil authorities were affected by these concerns. As a result, hundreds of workers in the medical and local administration sectors in the opposition-controlled areas lost their sources of income.
The family of police officer Hassan Ali Younes is currently living by an average of $ 75 (35,000 Syrian liras) per month, which their young son earns from working in the tile factory. The father fears that this amount will decrease as the winter falls and the work of tile workshops and factories decreases.
However, Hassan still has hope that there would be a new supporting party that would restore the effectiveness of the police authority. He believes that police officers’ tendency towards other professions and jobs “will negatively affect the work of the authority, and it may lead in the near future to the negligence of our duties to serve our people and to achieve security and safety for them.”
Some projects stopped and others are threatened…
“Manifestations of armaments” the civil society’s concern
Since the Syrian war has entered the conflict of “terrorism”, the western countries have been promoting their efforts to combat the sources of funding of the extremist organizations in Syria. These countries and their organizations have later been hit with the fear of falling into the position of being accused of funding these organizations by supporting civil organizations that may fall under the control of armed factions or their funding may go to militias.
The Syrian situation has witnessed several incidents that proved that the supporting western countries and organizations of the service projects at the Syrian interior will not hesitate to cut this support at the expense of a number of affected civilians, under the pretext of avoiding accusations of supporting terrorism.
In this context, the organizations operating in Syria have sought to take action against the de facto authority, trying to distance themselves from militarism and politics, demanding that armed manifestations be excluded from their projects that are primarily aimed at the welfare of vulnerable civilians. However, these measures have not necessarily been effective and the military reality has imposed itself on several civil labor sectors.
Neutralization from the conflict… When militarism was mixed with services
On October 29, a video clip was circulated on social media websites showing a group of members belonging to Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham inside a hospital of the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) in the village of Kafr Hamrah in the western countryside of Aleppo.
What is controversial in the video that it shows the father of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham’s leader, Amin Naasan (Aboul Turab al-Sharai), fully armed, while the video frame shows the logo of SAMS, which quickly issued a statement confirming that an armed group entered one of its medical facilities in the countryside of Aleppo after the arrival of a wounded person belonging to that group to the hospital.
The Society pointed out that with his light weapon, the guard of the hospital could not prevent the group from entering, so he called the local authorities that took the armed men out of the hospital within hours.
SAMS has taken a number of measures following the incident in order not to affect in one way or another the support provided to its medical facilities that are mainly dedicated to the civilian population, according to the director of the Society’s office in Idlib, Muhammad Tanari.
Tanari added to Enab Baladi that the Society has taken several measures in which it demanded the neutralization of its facilities from armed manifestations, in coordination with local councils and the Health Directorate in Idlib, to prevent the recurrence of similar incidents.
“We have told the officials that any similar incident may cut support for our medical facilities, and unfortunately the civilians and the poor will be the most affected,” he said.
Tanari cited cases in which support for medical facilities in the Syrian opposition areas was cut off, including the closure of four medical centers in al-Ghab Plain in Hama western countryside, earlier this month.
Ibrahim al-Shamali, media director of “al-Hurra” health directorate, told Enab Baladi that “the projects that have been suspended are being followed by several organizations, including “Relief International.” He pointed out that the reasons for the interruption of support are “unclear” so far.
In al-Ghab Plain, militants of the “Tahrir al-Sham,” which is on the terrorist lists in Turkey and America, are employed. The civil society organizations there try to neutralize themselves from the armed factions, in order to prevent the interruption of support for them.
“Tahrir al-Sham” on the lists of terrorism
Over the course of three years of activity in Syria, the United States, the European Union and Turkey have designated the “al-Nusra Front” as a terrorist organization, as approved by the Security Council in May 2013.
In an attempt to avoid this classification, “al-Nusra Front” broke its link with al-Qaeda in July 2016. It changed its name to “Fatah al-Sham” and then integrated into “Tahrir al-Sham”. However, it did not succeed in changing its classification, as Washington insisted on placing it on the lists of terrorism. The US State Department said that “Tahrir al-Sham” is classified as a terrorist group regardless of its name and the party it is integrated with.
Ahead of a possible attack in Idlib in August 2018, a decree issued by the Presidency of the Republic of Turkey stated that “Tahrir al-Sham” is a “terrorist group” and added it to the bodies and individuals whose assets were frozen due to links to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.
The residential community in Atme … Is it a lesson?
The impact of the armed manifestations on the suspension of service projects in northern Syria is evident in the incident of the “Ataa Residential Complex,” which “Tahrir al-Sham” took control over last August.
In the details of the incident, the “Humanitarian Ata’a” association accused the Department of Displacement of the Salvation Government of taking over the second residential complex in the town of Atme in Idlib northern countryside, “without taking into account its consent or ownership.”
It added in a statement issued immediately after the incident that the “Displaced Authority” broke into the residential complex and took over and broke into more than half of its housing units, and provided housing for displaced families of the Quneitra and Daraa, which led to the spread of chaos and the seizure of the entire residential complex, as well as the entry of armed militants to the complex.
The Salvation Government did not comment on the accusation against it by the humanitarian association, but “Ata’a” said that the Department of Displaced People apologized for not getting control over the residential complex again, claiming that it was out of their control.
In March, “Ata’a” announced the launch of a residential project that will be a substitute for the camps, aiming at displaced people in the area, , and providing accommodation to around 750 families, in addition to the first complex, which currently includes 520 families.
Although Ata’a did not explicitly acknowledge the cut of support for its project, it noted in its statement that such interventions would affect relief activity in the region and threaten to cut support for those in need. It also filed a complaint to the court, and charged the Department of Displaced Affairs with full responsibility for the consequences of the matter.
The project is still stalled today, amid negotiations by the association with officials to reach an agreement that would solve the problem, an official of the “Ata’a” association, who preferred not to be named, told Enab Baladi.
Salvation Government … Political wall blocks money from local councils
In November 2017, the Salvation Government was formed in the city of Idlib, to rival the Syrian Interim Government’s political and civil action in the region. However, as it was formed with the support of the Tahrir al-Sham, it was included in the “terrorist-classification”, which negatively affected the policies of international support for civil projects in Idlib.
Madhhar Sharbaji: the support of 50-60% of the local councils in Idlib fell after the Salvation Government control.
Director of Governance and Capacity Building of the Local Administration Councils Unit (LACU) of the Syrian Interim Government, Madhhar Sharabji, talked to Enab Baladi about the damage caused to some local councils in Idlib following the control of the Salvation Government.
Sharbaji said that “the supporting parties are dealing with the moderate local councils of the Interim Government, which are recognized internationally, but with the presence of the Salvation Government, the supporters have refrained from providing support to any council that does not belong to the Interim Government”. He added that “the organizations have lists of rejection (veto) of some areas controlled by the Salvation Government.”
Sharbaji estimates the percentage of local councils affected in Idlib between 50 and 60 percent of the councils in Idlib; that is in the areas under the Salvation Government control. He believes that the supporters fear that the “Salvation” will seize the funds that can be provided for humanitarian projects and direct them in other things.
The researcher at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, Ayman al-Desouki, agrees with Sharbaji that local councils were affected after the formation of the Salvation Government, and that the support of the councils under its control or the councils in the areas controlled by the Tahrir al-Sham has indeed declined.
However, he said in a meeting with Enab Baladi that “the decline of support is a general feature before the announcement of the Salvation Government, within the policy of the supporters of the reconsideration of policies in the north, and shifting the pattern of support from dealing with the councils to preferring to deal with civil society organizations.”
From his point of view, “Tahrir al-Sham and the Salvation Government are a pretext, as the issue is related to pressure exercised within the context of political negotiation and relations between states.”
Suspended support … Changed policies or fear of “terrorism”
There are no obvious reasons why some humanitarian organizations have stopped supporting their projects in the north of Syria. However, some facts on the ground may provide answers that would give a close picture of the reality.
The Free Police is backed up by 5 states, mainly the UK and the US through the American Arbitration Association. The decision to halt the support coincided with the talks held about the fate of the governorate of Idlib, whether with the entry of the Turkish and annexing it to the Turkish-held areas in the north, such as northern Aleppo countryside, or the entry of al-Assad forces along with other areas.
It has also occurred when the BBC published an investigative report, which reported that the British foreign aid funds are being granted “to the extremists in Syria”.
Al-Shallaf ruled out that the decision to halt the support was due to fears of “terrorism”. He explained that the theme of “terrorism” was raised during the meeting with the supporters, and confirmed that “it has nothing to do with this, especially with the support which has been ongoing over the past five years.”
According to al-Shallaf, organizations have tended to halt non-humanitarian projects, which were carried out in cooperation with the Free Police, for the past few months so as to go on supporting only the humanitarian projects that civilians need. Currently, these organizations have started to suspend all the projects in the north.
Al-Shallaf’s point of view goes in line with what the director of the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations (UOSSM), Zaidoun al-Zoubi, said about the policy of countries which is considered as key factor halting the projects of the organizations in the north.
“Support depends on politics, and stopping the projects aiming to achieve stability whether by Britain or the US, is indeed a political decision,” said al-Zoubi during an interview with Enab Baladi.
He also highlighted that the political decision is linked on the one hand to Turkey and to the European Union on the other hand. The EU is the only one offering real support for stability currently in northwestern Syria.
During a previous interview with al-Zoubi in November 2017, he stated that the Turkish government was one of the most active supporters of the organizations, and it has largely permitted its work. However, recently it has started to scrutinize and control remittances, or request work permits for all workers in organizations, especially in Gaziantep bordering Syria, where they are many active organization. As a result, many Syrian workers were suffering the repercussions. Al-Zoubi pointed out that Turkey’s goal is to control the activity of these organizations on its territory.
Al-Zoubi stated that some organizations, such as the International Rescue Committee, had moved from the north to the south as a result of the Turkish government’s policy, while the activity of some others, such as the International Medical Corps, has declined.
The Turkish side is currently in charge of the situation in Idlib, especially after the last Sochi agreement signed with Russia, which established a buffer zone between the Syrian regime and the opposition. However, international roads need to be opened and a civil administration of the area needs to be established, too.
Turkey has curtailed the role of humanitarian organizations in the cities and towns of northern Aleppo countryside after establishing full control of the area within the framework of the “Euphrates Shield” battles. Turkey has transferred all the administrative services of the councils or other projects to its institutions in the states of Kilis and Gaziantep.
Al-Zoubi refers to another factor aiming to stop the support, which is linked to the control of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, accused of belonging to al-Qaeda, over the governorate of Idlib in northern Syria. This had further complicated the method and the possibility of intervention in the governorate.
Al-Zoubi stated that “Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham is one of the main key factors halting support.” He pointed out that “Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham is either the direct cause or the direct pretext, as was the case with the British and Dutch organizations, which stopped their support programs for the Free Police.”
“The liberation of the Sham is either the direct cause or the direct pretext, as was the case with the British and Dutch organizations, which suspended their support programs for the free police,” he said.
US and Britain … How do the supporters justify reducing support?
The British government refuses to recognize the connection between halting its support for the Free Police and the report of the BBC, which described the Free Police members as “extremists” although halting support came immediately after the article, was published.
The US acknowledges the fact that terrorism concerns are governed by humanitarian support policies in Syria.
Enab Baladi has contacted a group of Western supporters of Syrian humanitarian projects and organizations, but only Adam Smith International Organization (ASI) has responded. This organization is running the Access to Justice and Community Security Program (AJACS) funded by the UK, and the Syria Transition Assistance Team within the US Embassy in Ankara.
“The British government is committed to supporting our partners in Syria and funding a number of programs aimed at alleviating suffering and helping communities cope with the horrific repercussions of the war,” said David Robson, Director of the Security and Community Justice Program.
In emails Robson has sent to Enab Baladi on December 4, 2017, he criticized the BBC investigation and described it as “an unprofessional and irresponsible attack by the BBC on a program aiming to resist violent extremism and support free and courageous police trying to extricate their communities of violence and achieve stability and security of communities in desperate conditions in the opposition.”
Robson considered that “such harmful journalistic investigation jeopardized the financial support provided by the UK and other government donors”. However, he did not discuss the nature of the “risks” that would cut down financial aids.
Public Affairs Officer for the Syrian Transition Assistance and Response team (START) at the US Embassy in Ankara, Sofia Khaliji, also confirmed in e-mail correspondence with Enab Baladi the US commitment to provide humanitarian support to Syria, stating that “the US has given more than $8.6 billion in the form of financial assistance to Syria and the region generally since the beginning of the crisis”.
Although the US President Donald Trump declared last August that he cancelled the decision of allocating $230 million to fund Syria’s stabilization programs and that he intends to direct these funds to support other priorities, Khaliji considered that such recent arrangement did not “end up in halting or reducing US humanitarian support for Syria.” Thus, she justified her conclusion by the fact that “the International Civil Defense Organizational (ICDO), United Nations’ partner, maintained its support for the ban of chemical weapons in Syria.”
Khaliji added: “We aim to reduce the odds of having such financial aids in the hands of terrorists by monitoring our partners and distributing funds directly to beneficiaries.”
Answering Enab Baladi’s question about the possibility of having such aids routed to organizations classified as terrorist, Khaliji said: “When the US has its reasons to consider that a program has been lost or diverted to meet the interests of terrorist groups, we take immediate action to suspend the program’s activities to prevent further losses. We manage the risks while consulting our partners to ensure the best ways to deliver the financial support without the intervention of terrorist parties”.
How is humanitarian action regulated by the International Law?
Since 1963, the international community has ratified 13 universal legal instruments to hinder terrorist acts. Those statutory instruments have been prepared under the supervision of the UN, its specialized agencies, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
In 2005, the international community introduced substantive modifications to three of these preventative universal instruments, with a particular regard to terrorism, and since 2010 other resolutions have followed up.
The International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism signed in 1999, which is one of the most important international counter-terrorism conventions, states that “engaged parties shall take preventive measures to combat direct or indirect financing of terrorists, which is enabled through groups claiming to pursue charitable, social and cultural activities, or encouraging illegal practices such as drug and arms trafficking”.
The convention also holds those who finance terrorism to be criminally, civically, and administratively accountable, in addition to identifying terrorist activities, freeze and confiscate funds directed to terrorist organizations, as well as sharing confiscated funds with other States, in accordance to the specificities of each case. Hence, terms of confidentiality employed by banks shall not be considered a sufficient justification for refusing to cooperate in order to unveil financial crimes of this sort.”
Article 2 of the same convention states that, by any means, any person will be criminalized if he/she intends to directly or indirectly offer or collect funds, unlawfully and willingly, with the intention of using such capital or knowing that it will be used in whole or partially to perform any act aimed at causing the death or injury of a civilian or any other person when that individual is not involved in hostilities taking place in the course of an armed conflict.
This applies also to organizations as in Article 5 (paragraph 3) of the convention. Thus, each signing party is required to guarantee that guilty judicial individuals (or organizations) are subjugated to effective, appropriate, and deterrent criminal, civil or administrative sanctions, including fines.
Instances of the impact of terrorism on humanitarian action
Commissioned by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) and on behalf of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), Norwegian researchers submitted, in 2015, a report entitled Risk Management Mechanism on Counter-Terrorism Measures, assessing the outcomes of counter-terrorism policies following the September 11 attacks in the United States in 2001.
UN Assistant-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Kyung-Wha Kang, said in the report that “the impact of counter-terrorism measures on humanitarian action has been a growing concern within the humanitarian community, and there is a particular apprehension that people in areas under the control of non-State armed groups, listed as terrorist organizations, may not have a chance or have diminishing prospects to access humanitarian assistance and protection.”
The report focused on the cases of Somalia and Palestine, as the US, the European Union, and Australia have issued laws to prevent international support for groups classified as terrorist organizations in several regions including these areas.
Beneficiaries in the Gaza Strip are denied humanitarian aid, as the area is controlled by Hamas, which is a movement banned by the US.
As mentioned in Risk Management Mechanism on Counterterrorism Measures, anti-terrorism legislation has affected humanitarian actions in the Gaza Strip, causing “a change in the determinants of humanitarian activities, i.e. prioritizing the allocation of programs to avoid contact or support of a particular group (Hamas), then to respond to humanitarian needs.”
As a result, the role of local NGOs in Gaza has diminished. As “some local NGOs have refused to accept grants from donors as a result of counter-terrorism laws, the efficiency of donors’ efforts, as well as efforts of United Nations agencies and international NGOs in finding qualified partners have been affected,” according to the report.
As a case in point, after 2008, when the US classified Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen (an extremist Somali group) as a terrorist organization, funds directed to Somalia were decreased by 82 percent between 2008 and 2010, as mentioned in the report.
The report warned that counter terrorism laws have negatively affected aid agencies, which caused a major impact on humanitarian programs, noting that “the research revealed a high level of restraint and auto-censorship, especially among organizations that may have an extremely vulnerable reputation, especially Islamic NGOs. Thus, the risk of criminal prosecution and reputation damage in some cases led to excessive compliance with such regulations.”