Investigation reveals UN procurements declined in Syria but grew riskier

The United Nations flag, inverted atop rubble in the town of Jindires in northern Aleppo, signifies protest against delayed response after an earthquake hit Turkish and Syrian regions - February 11, 2023 (United Nations)

The United Nations flag, inverted atop rubble in the town of Jindires in northern Aleppo, signifies protest against delayed response after an earthquake hit Turkish and Syrian regions - February 11, 2023 (United Nations)


An investigation published by the Syrian Observatory of Political and Economic Networks (OPEN) revealed a widespread decrease in procurements from Syria by various UN agencies between 2021 and 2022, compared to a previous probe monitoring purchasing activities during 2019 and 2020.

According to UN procurement data, a total of approximately $309 million was spent on suppliers based in Syria between 2021 and 2022.

The investigation, published yesterday, Wednesday, May 22, highlighted that 10 out of 14 UN agencies reported a decline in their procurements during this period, suggesting a shift in the UN’s policy on sourcing supplies for humanitarian response in the country.

The report noted that while avoiding procurements from within a targeted state generally harms the local economy under normal circumstances, it is welcomed in the Syrian context due to the systematic looting of aid.

On October 25, 2022, an investigation by the Syrian Observatory of Political and Economic Networks and the Syrian Legal Development Program (SLDP) revealed that the UN spent approximately 47% of its purchases in Syria in 2019 and 2020 on Syrian companies whose owners are human rights violators, war profiteers, regime affiliates on western sanctions lists, among others connected to the Syrian regime.

The investigation revealed through documents that the UN had allocated about $137 million of its purchasing expenditure to these companies owned by Hashem al-Aqqad, Samir Hassan, Fadi Saqr, Samer Foz, Ahmed Saber Hamsho, Ali Hamsho, Amro Hamsho, Rania al-Dabbas, among others, accounting for 94% of the total purchase expenditure.

Riskier procurements

Although in-country procurements fell, they became relatively riskier in terms of suppliers with likely or certain ties to human rights abusers.

The investigation observed an increase in the percentage of procurements from suppliers with high and very high risk levels during 2021-2022 compared to 2019-2020, with a corresponding decrease of about six percentage points in procurements from suppliers with medium risk levels.

Suppliers classified as very high and high-risk accounted for 52% during 2021-2022, compared to 47% in the previous two years.

It remains unclear whether this shift has resulted from the exit of low-risk suppliers from the market in light of the regime’s increasing practices of business harassment, and also reflects an increase in procurements from risky suppliers, raising the share of purchases from suppliers owned by individuals subject to sanctions: from 23% in 2019-2020, to 31% in 2021-2022.

The investigation clarified that most of these sanctioned suppliers are close to the Syrian regime, such as Samir Hassan, Samer Foz, Mohammad Hamsho, and Bilal al-Naal.

Based on a guide authored by the Syrian Legal Development Program and the Human Rights Watch (HRW) in early 2022, the report categorized suppliers into four risk levels.

The “very high risk” classification included companies linked to human rights violations, paramilitary groups, the private security sector, destruction of civilian properties, urban development of lands where people have been forcibly displaced, and support for the armed forces and the Syrian regime since 2011.

“High risk” companies included those awarded contracts by the regime, monopolized specific sectors, owned by members of the People’s Assembly or other local officials, donations to Syrian entities, or participated in the economic siege of areas controlled by the opposition.

Lack of transparency by the United Nations

To investigate the UN’s procurements from government institutions, the investigators reviewed the procurement database and identified all government suppliers from 2015 to 2022.

Among 727 different suppliers during 2021 and 2022, it turned out that 20 of them were government institutions, reflecting the minor scale of supplies from government institutions compared to the general humanitarian response, with the value of those supplies ranging between one and two million dollars annually between 2015 and 2021.

The investigation considered that some suppliers are granted contracts without restrictions, as in the case of the electricity company, which is the sole electricity supplier in Syria.

In 2022, purchases from government organizations and the joint sector, such as the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) and the Sadcop-Mahrukat fuel company, exceeded three million dollars. Moreover, fuel purchases in 2022 are likely to rise further as the regime started imposing significantly higher prices following the February 2023 earthquake without any public opposition from donor countries and the United Nations.

Particularly concerning is the United Nations’ lack of transparency. In 2022, Syria recorded the highest share of purchases from suppliers whose identities the United Nations reserves in its procurement database for reasons of “security” or “privacy” compared to the top five countries in the world in terms of the volume of humanitarian response.

The data show that UN agencies that purchase from suppliers whose identities have not been disclosed tend to be accused of committing more violations.

According to the investigation, procurements nonetheless represent only a small share of the UN’s total humanitarian expenditure, including significant items such as purchases from outside Syria, staff salaries, and local partnerships with civil society organizations.

Partnerships include Asma al-Assad and Jalbout 

Investigators obtained a set of leaked data in July 2023 from the Syrian Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor.

The data for each partnership identifies the Syrian partner organization, the partnering UN agency, the funding allocated by the UN in US dollars and Syrian pounds, the type of activities funded, the theoretical number of beneficiaries from the aids, the province of implementation, and the decision of the responsible government department regarding allowing (or not allowing) the commencement and continuation (or discontinuation) of the partnership.

The exchange rate indicated by the amounts in dollars and pounds in this data set covers the period from June 2020 to April 2022.

Regarding the non-governmental organizations funded by the UN listed in the leaked files, many of them have shown explicit and strong support for the Syrian regime, which has caused a large part of the humanitarian disaster on Syrians in the first place and committed grave human rights violations.

The data highlights detailed funding for the Syria Trust for Development, led by Asma al-Assad, and several NGOs that have strongly called for al-Assad’s re-election recently.

The data also reveals that between June 2020 and February 2021, an NGO called Nour for Relief and Development received approximately 1.8 million dollars from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and more than 170 thousand dollars from the World Health Organization (WHO), along with previous partnerships with UNICEF and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

This NGO is active in several areas such as Yarmouk Camp, Yalda, and Beit Sahem, and is headed by Mohammad Jalbout, accused of collaborating with Syrian security forces and facilitating security measures against opposition activists, including the extraction of forced confessions and torture that reportedly led to the death of Palestinian photographer Niraz Saeed.

Jalbout is also linked to the regime-loyal militia Liwa al-Quds and the Popular Front-General Command, listed as a terrorist organization in several countries, and Jalbout’s international relations are also evident through his interactions with Russian officials and participation in high-level Syrian political dialogues.

Despite accusations of committing human rights violations, Jalbout continues to participate in meetings led by the United Nations, including representing Syrian civil society in Geneva in the Civil Society Support Room on January 29, 2024.


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