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Millions in UN state aid given to organisations run by Syrian President's family

Analysis by The Guardian has shown that millions have been allocated in aid to these organisations – despite EU and US sanctions.

A child uses a megaphone to chant Free Syrian Army slogans during a demonstration in 2013.
A child uses a megaphone to chant Free Syrian Army slogans during a demonstration in 2013.
Image: Associated Press

UNITED NATIONS AID contracts worth tens of millions of dollars have gone to family members of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, according to a report by the Guardian published today.

This is despite rulings by the US and EU which restrict this kind of funding because of serious doubt around whether the funds would be distributed appropriately.

The newspaper’s analysis of hundreds of UN contracts granted since the Syrian conflict began in 2011 showed many awarded to companies run by or linked to key regime players who are under EU and US sanctions.

But the United Nations defended its actions, saying they were taken “in accordance with the core humanitarian principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence.”

What went where?

London Syria Conference UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and other EU leaders during the 'Supporting Syria and the Region' conference in London. Source: Dan Kitwood/PA Images

The Guardian found that two UN agencies had partnered up with the Syria Trust charity, an organisation started and chaired by Assad’s wife Asma, spending a total of $8.5 million, or €7.6 million.

It also said the UN had given money to the state-owned fuel supplier, which is under EU sanctions, and to Syria’s national blood bank, which is controlled by Assad’s defence ministry.

Money also went to the Al-Bustan Association, owned and run by Assad’s billionaire cousin Rami Makhlouf, who is Syria’s most notorious and powerful tycoon.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation had given $13.3 million to the Syrian agriculture ministry, which is on the EU sanctions list, the Guardian said.

These contracts show how the UN operation has quietly secured deals with individuals and companies that have been designated off-limits by Europe and the US.

According to analysis of hundreds of contracts Syria has awarded since 2011:

  • Over $13m was given by the UN to boost Syrian farming and agriculture (against EU sanctions)
  • At least $4m was allocated to the state-owned fuel supplier (against EU sanctions)
  • A total of $8.5m was given to the Syria Trust charity, an organisation started and chaired by President Assad’s wife, Asma (against US and EU sanctions)
  • $267,933 from Unicef went to the Al-Bustan Association, owned by Rami Makhlouf, Syria’s wealthiest man and a cousin of President Assad
  • $700,000 from the UN was also given to Makhlouf’s phone network Syriatel. Makhlouf is on the EU sanctions list and was described in US diplomatic cables as the country’s “poster boy for corruption”.
  • $5m from the World Health Organisation went towards Syrian blood banks, even though it had “concrete concerns” about whether blood supplies would reach those in need, or be directed to the military first.

Reinoud Leenders, an expert in war studies at King’s College London, wrote in the Guardian that the “UN’s alleged pragmatism has long given way to troubling proximity to the regime”.

UN spokesperson

But a UN spokesman defended the contracts.

“It is correct that in Syria, the government determines the non-governmental organisations that the UN agencies in Syria are permitted to work with,” explained Jens Laerke, from UN humanitarian agency OCHA.

If agencies in Syria did not accept this, than they would not be able to save so many lives.

“Our activities are governed by the UN charter…this is done in accordance with the core humanitarian principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence,” he added.

With reporting from Gráinne Ní Aodha.

- © AFP, 2016

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