Many Syrians I spoke to on a recent visit to Syria hold the UN partially responsible for the deaths of 70, 000 lives in the unfolding humanitarian disaster that is wracking the country. There is an impression that the UN is propping up the regime by working and delivering aid via the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC). In a recent interview with Mr. Walid Saffour, the UK representative for the Syrian National Coalition, he told me that the way the UN was dealing with the regime was "absolutely unfair... they don't deal with both sides on an equal footing". While some may dismiss this as the grumblings of the opposition or mere conspiracy theories, the close links between the SARC and the regime makes any aid delivered by the UN via SARC appear partisan. Moreover it is made worse by the UN not being able to guarantee that aid really reaches its beneficiaries. The fact that British charities are going down the same path is alarming.
As early as 2012 David Kenner in Foreign Policy said that the Union of Syrian Medical Relief Organizations (UOSSM) warned that international aid was being confiscated by the Assad regime. In fact, David Kenner asserts that top brass of SARC is filled by figures close to the regime. Take for example the head of SARC, Dr. Abdulrahman Attar, a wealthy businessman who according Kjetil Selvik in Business Politics in the Middle East, is described as a "crony capitalist". He is a product of the union of the regime and industry engineered by Badr al-Din Shallah between the years 1979-1982. It resulted in an economic system which Professor Bassam Haddad describes as a crony capitalist state par excellance. In such a system only those with close ties to the regime succeed. Unsurprisingly, when the regime liberalized the economy in the 1990s tycoons like Attar, Tlass and Shallah capitalized on this special relationship.
The relationship between Attar and the Syrian regime has lead to a spectacular rise in fortunes. It has allowed him to have interests in pharmaceuticals, insurance, banking, tourism and agriculture, as well as holding the presidency of the Syrian Chamber of Commerce. According to Attar groups' very own website it represents the interests of multinational pharmaceuticals like Novartis and Roche to mention only two, and has interests in all the banks in Syria including Banque Bemo, Audi Bank, Syrian & Gulf Bank, United Insurance Company and International Money Exchange Company. In tourism it represents Carlton, in the aviation sector Alitalia, in IT and telecommunications Ericsson, Sony and IBM, need I go on? Anyone who has lived in Syria for long enough will tell you that this sort of success cannot be achieved by hard graft alone. It is safe to say that the links between Attar and Assad are to say the least intimate.
So intimate in fact that Joseph Sweid, the Minister of State for the Syrian Arab Red Crescent Affairs, told Syria's official news agency (SANA) that SARC is linked to the Syrian prime ministry. SARC is then, no ordinary non-governmental organisation. It is not surprising that prominent members of the Syrian diaspora have stated in the Canadian houses of parliament that Attar has allowed some of his properties to be used as detention centers for the Assad regime.
Speaking to Andrej Mahecic, one of UNHCR's communications coordinators about the issue he responded by saying that the UN "has a purely humanitarian mandate and do not have a political agenda... the key for us is to deliver aid to all vulnerable populations that is why we appeal to all sides to enable humanitarian access to reach all populations in need". There has certainly been an improvement in the fact that aid is now being delivered to all the governates in Syria including the northern parts, however, whilst recognizing that aid delivery is difficult and complex does it mean that the UN should work with an NGO whose head is in bed with the regime? How can one ensure that aid actually reaches its beneficiaries since there are not enough monitors on the ground as UNICEF has admitted in the past? How can one ensure that aid is not being redirected by an organization that is populated by pro-regime management? What guarantees do we have that Dr. Attar is distributing aid fairly when US officials have long suspected him for being a front man for circumventing international embargoes? How do we know that SARC isn't just tricking the UN since it is so close to the prime ministry?
Moreover, if effective aid delivery cannot be checked where is it going to? Is it supplementing the ailing Syrian economy? Fuelling the thriving Syrian black market? Or is it helping regime thugs, the Shabiha? Can we be sure that aid isn't fuelling sadistic Shabiha who activists told me insert live rodents inside Syrian women as a method of torture? It is scandalous to think that well intentioned donations might inadvertently be propping up a blood thirsty regime.
Whilst the UN rolls off statistics and sugary rhetoric about the human tragedy in Syria it owes donors a duty to make sure that aid reaches its intended beneficiaries. A one-sided aid delivery model is unconstructive and reinforces the notion that the West is yet again conspiring against Syria. It is high time for a more robust aid delivery involving better checks, working closely with Syrian diaspora charities, cross border aid delivery as advocated by the likes of Doctors Without Borders. The worry now is that the DEC British charities whilst well intentioned will go down the same route as the UN and possibly be hoodwinked by the regime yet again and prolong the conflict.