Decoding dilemma of UN-led response in Syria 

A United Nations convoy in Syria (George Ourfalian / AFP)

A United Nations convoy in Syria (George Ourfalian / AFP)


Enab Baladi – Diana Rahima

Numerous reports have condemned the conduct of United Nations (UN) agencies in Syria, with some accusing the UN of funding individuals who have carried out human rights violations or of covering up the Syrian regime’s killing of a number of humanitarian workers, basing these accusations on testimonies and evidence incriminating specific actors.

These reports raised questions about the mechanism by which the UN operates within the spheres of influence of a regime that has killed and displaced millions of Syrians from their lands. The reports also criticized the distribution of UN humanitarian aid under the regime’s supervision and conditions.

In this article, Enab Baladi discusses with a group of experts and researchers accusations made against UN agencies working in regime-held areas and whether they are right or misleading in some cases. It also touches upon the mechanism that can be put in place to ease restrictions imposed by the regime on any entity present in its territories.

Enab Baladi contacted the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) to comment on these accusations and clarify their position. 

Allegations against UN agencies

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) published on 14 February a report entitled “Rescuing Aid in Syria,” in which it said that the regime forces control the distribution of UN humanitarian assistance and that the “UNDP has contracted militias such as the Aleppo Defenders, responsible for destroying areas in Aleppo city, to clear and rehabilitate the same neighborhoods.”

The report also mentioned that threats to relief workers had impeded UN agencies and NGOs from conducting independent oversight.

According to the report, Mohammed Hamsho, a businessman close to the Fourth Division and Maher al-Assad, the president’s brother, has made a fortune stripping recently retaken areas of metals and reworking them for sale at his Hadeed Metal Manufacturing Company.

Samer al-Foz, another wealthy Syrian businessman accused of funding the Military Security Shield Forces, a paramilitary force associated with Syria’s military intelligence service, has also gained, in multiple ways, from the aid apparatus. Al-Foz is a major shareholder in the Four Seasons Hotel in Damascus, where UN employees stay, but also has his own charity and is prepared to gain from profitable aid contracts if he has not already, the report added.

The report claims that the UN also contracted Class Training, a company nominally owned by the son of Ali Mamlouk, a special security adviser to the regime’s president, Bashar al-Assad.

Enab Baladi contacted the UNDP Resident Representative in Syria, Ramla Khalidi, regarding allegations of the UNDP having contracts with entities mentioned in the report, to which Khalidi replied, “the UNDP has found no evidence of having contracted with these entities, nor have we found any records of them in our vendor database.”

UN conceals killing of two relief workers by al-Assad regime

On 10 February, the US channel, al-Hurra, and the Israeli newspaper The Jerusalem Post published an investigation claiming that the UN has covered up al-Assad’s killing of two humanitarian workers.

According to the investigation, the UN has allegedly concealed the murder by the al-Assad regime of two humanitarian staffers who were part of a relief convoy between the Syrian cities of Aleppo and Homs in 2016.

The year-long investigation into alleged UN misconduct in Syria revealed that UN officials in 2016 appeared to have worked at cross purposes and did not publicize an internal UN message saying that al-Assad’s military had killed two aid workers, according to The Jerusalem Post.

The investigation named two former UN officials, the UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator Stephen O’Brien and Jan Egeland, the humanitarian adviser to the UN special envoy for Syria, as being responsible for not revealing an internal UN message saying that al-Assad’s military strikes have killed two relief workers.

A disinfection campaign to sterilize the streets and shelters in Homs city by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC)

A disinfection campaign to sterilize the streets and shelters in Homs city by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC)

UN responds to accusations of misconduct in Syria

The Public Information Officer at the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Vanessa Huguenin, told Enab Baladi that the UN has continued to speak out for the protection of aid workers in Syria, reporting on attacks and calling for accountability. 

She added, the UN publishes reports in the public domain, including on security incidents involving humanitarian convoys and humanitarian workers.

The UN has consistently reminded all parties that attacks on civilians, including humanitarian workers and civilian infrastructure, are absolutely unacceptable, Huguenin said.

She also stated that the UN welcomes independent scrutiny of humanitarian operations in Syria, stressing that the UN’s foremost priority in Syria will always be to assist people in need guided by humanitarian principles and accountability to the affected populations and transparency.

In Syria, as in all countries where we operate, the UN’s presence and activities are governed by the UN charter, other relevant instruments, and the core humanitarian principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality, and independence, Huguenin said.

Doubts over UN’s employment and procurement processes

The CSIS report said that the regime controls the access and visa approvals of relief organizations workers and that it became very common for relatives of senior regime officials to obtain jobs in UN agencies.  

Vanessa Huguenin told Enab Baladi that OCHA publishes all vacancies and hires its staff based on merit following thorough recruitment processes, and that OCHA does not discriminate based on political affiliation.

Employees are expected to fully abide with humanitarian principles and the UN code of conduct, Huguenin said.

She added, as a condition of employment, all UN staff are required to take an oath to act in the best interest of the UN and not to seek or accept instructions in regard to performance of duties from any government or other source external of the organization, as mandated by the UN staff regulations and rules.

The selection of implementing partners is based on organizational criteria, including the demonstrated capacity and ability to deliver services, Huguenin said, clarifying that some governments require NGOs to be registered and authorized to operate as aid agencies, as in Syria. 

In addition to global institutional accountability and transparency policies, rules, regulations, and standards, the UN in Syria has adopted ad hoc measures to enhance the safeguards and due diligence of its operations. The UN will continue to strengthen its risk management practices, according to Huguenin.

A convoy for the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) waiting to enter Turkey from Syrian borders - 2014 (UNICEF)

A convoy for the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) waiting to enter Turkey from Syrian borders – 2014 (UNICEF)

International disregard strengthens regime’s grip over UN operations

The UN is keen on maintaining a good relationship with its Member States, for they can allow or prevent the entry of UN staffers to do certain activities, investigations, or even to distribute humanitarian aid, the Executive Director of the Syrian Justice and Accountability Center (SJAC), Mohammad al-Abdullah, told Enab Baladi

However, the UN can still force its will on a Member State, despite its opposition, by reaching a Security Council resolution.

In the Syrian case, with the permanent existence of a joint Russian-Chinese veto, and in the absence of the possibility of passing Security Council resolutions, the regime government is obliged to deal with the UN against its will, and the latter is bound by the consent of the Member State.

The UN in Syria is caught between the regime’s approval or refusal of its existence. The regime can deny UN agencies and workers entry permission and prevent the access of humanitarian aid convoys and teams to certain areas in Syria, like when the regime prevented the UN’s (IICISyria) Independent International Commission of Inquiry’s team from entering Syria for it lacked any resolution forcing the regime to allow its entry, al-Abdullah said. 

According to al-Abdullah, the problem in the United Nations does not lie within its humanitarian wing (OCHA) or in aid distribution, but rather in the Security Council’s failure to force the regime to accept the entry of the UN and its commissions of inquiry into certain areas.

Consequently, the UN came to deal with the regime under its terms and rules in exchange for allowing it to enter certain areas, provided that the UN deals with it positively. Such engagements are dangerous because they are a prelude to additional incidents where any Member State can prevent the entry of the UN to certain areas in exchange for certain privileges.

Al-Abdullah referred to one of the documents leaked from the UN and published by the British website ‘The Middle East Eye,’ which revealed that the regime government had removed the phrase “besieged areas” from a UN report on the situation in Syria and replaced it with “hard-to-reach areas,” and that the UN approved the amendment and allowed the regime to edit its core report.

The only time the Syrian regime was forced to let an international organization enter its territories was when inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) entered Syria, not by a Security Council resolution, but thanks to US threats of a potential airstrike after the regime used chemical weapons against the Eastern Ghouta Region in 2013.

In his turn, the Executive Director of the Day After (TDA) organization, Mutasem al-Syoufi, told Enab Baladi that the Syrian security apparatus has the upper hand in deciding aid distribution and its recipients even though the Syrian Arab Red Crescent is nominally in charge. 

The totalitarian regime controls everything, including merchants, whom it forces by means of coercion or inducement to go into partnerships, al-Syoufi said.

The regime-held areas lack an adequate or neutral environment for independent commercial and humanitarian actions; therefore, it is still early to talk about mechanisms to ease the regime’s restrictions on the UN’s work in Syria. 

It is worth mentioning that no formal investigation to verify allegations against UN staffers has been launched yet, and these allegations are being treated as if they were never made. 

The entry of a United Nations aid convoy to Manbij with the help of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent - 7 March 2019 (UNHCR)

The entry of a United Nations aid convoy to Manbij with the help of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent – 7 March 2019 (UNHCR)

UN impartiality questioned in Syria

Syrian researcher and Ph.D. holder in Economics and research director at the Operations and Policy Center (OPC), Karam Shaar, said that the United Nations was not pressured into engagement with the regime on several occasions.  

The United Nations is obliged to make dealings with the Member States and authorities recognized by the United Nations General Assembly, where the regime government is still a member. Thus, the UN cannot undertake actions in Syria without the regime’s approval, Shaar said.

Moreover, the distribution of assistance in besieged areas was not to take place without the approval of the regime government, Shaar added.

The regime has applied numerous constraints against UN agencies, including the non-granting of visas to UN staffers neutral or sympathetic towards what happened to the Syrian people that revolted against the regime.

The UN is criticized for having offices inside the Four Seasons Hotel in Damascus, even though it works there under lots of security scrutiny from the Syrian government, long before Samer al-Foz owned the hotel.

The UN is also slammed for dealing with the only two telecommunications companies in Syria organically linked to the Syrian regime, even though this issue is outside its control.

However, the UN has shown bias towards the regime for reasons unrelated to legal concerns in Syria.

The UN’s attempt not to enrage the Syrian regime has reached a point beyond legal concerns, with the UN allowing the regime to intervene in the recruitment process in UN agencies operating in Syria, most prominent of which is the appointment of the wife of the Syrian Foreign Minister, Faisal Mekdad, to a position at the World Health Organization (WHO).

Costly verification mechanisms

According to Shaar, the UN is criticized for its human rights due diligence process, especially for non-Syrian business partners; however, this process is very costly at a time the organization is facing backlash for its high administrative costs, as large amounts of donations assigned for Syrians were deducted as operational expenses.

As for the regime, it benefits from dealings with the United Nations in several ways, most notably through the looting of exchange-rate differences, which existed before the start of humanitarian aid distribution in Syria. The regime also controls the distribution of assistance and limits aid to its associated entities, which has occurred many times.

Staffers counting amounts of money in the Syrian currency at the Central Bank of Syria - 2010 (AFP)

Staffers counting amounts of money in the Syrian currency at the Central Bank of Syria – 2010 (AFP)

A 2021 report by the CSIS in Washington mentioned that the regime government had made millions of US dollars from external aid by forcing an unfavorable exchange rate on UN agencies.

According to the report, the Central Bank of Syria (CBS), which is sanctioned by the United Kingdom, the United States, and the European Union, made 60 million USD in 2020 by taking 0.51 US cents out of every dollar sent to Syria as external aid. This proves that contracting with the UN agencies is one of the biggest ways for the regime’s president Bashar al-Assad and his government to make money. 

The regime also forced the UN to work with organizations associated with it, such as the Syria Trust For  Development, run by Asma al-Assad, the wife of the head of the Syrian regime, and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC).

Last January, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the Syrian Legal Development Program (SLDP) released a guide on the role of the lack of controls in procurement by UN agencies providing assistance in Syria with funding for human rights violators.

The guide documented procurements by UN agencies from entities involved in numerous violations in Syria.

The guide concluded that the reliance of UN agency procurement officials on UN sanctions list to decide vendors’ ineligibility is ineffective, explaining that this list only includes al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS), while other perpetrators, including the Syrian government and its affiliated militias, are not reflected in the UN sanctions system.

Many of the pre-war commercial networks are defunct, and Syria is largely characterized as a war economy. The business networks that survived in government-held Syria are closely tied to the Syrian government, which heightens the likelihood that they are involved in abuses. This requires greater caution in aid delivery in Syria, according to the guide.

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