The UN’s acknowledged “failure” in northern Syria after last month’s devastating earthquake has highlighted its tangled relations with the Damascus regime, which has included hiring a daughter of Syria’s sanctioned spy chief to work in the office of an aid agency.
The slow arrival of international help to impoverished opposition areas of Syria after the quake, which senior UN figures have admitted, underlined how humanitarian assistance is routinely weaponised by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. It exposed the ways in which the UN and other aid groups are forced into compromises that benefit the Syrian leader and his associates, according to aid experts and people working in the sector.
In one example, a daughter of Hussam Louka, head of Syria’s general intelligence directorate who has been sanctioned by the US, EU and UK over human rights violations, has been working in the UN CERF office in Damascus, according to four people with knowledge of the situation. UN CERF is an emergency fund that responds quickly to natural disasters and armed conflicts.
A spokesperson for the agency said the UN does not disclose personal information about staff, adding that all “staff members are hired according to rigorous recruitment processes”. The Financial Times has chosen not to name the daughter, believed to be in her early 20s, as she is not accused of any wrongdoing.
Documents leaked in 2016 showed the UN previously hired relatives of high-ranking regime officials. An aid worker based in the Middle East said: “I can’t tell you the amount of times where a Syrian government official has walked into our offices and pushed us to hire their kid.”
The hiring practices suggest UN agencies and international organisations operating in government-controlled areas may have relatives of regime loyalists in their ranks, which experts say has a “chilling effect” on some local staff.
Agencies have also reached uneasy compromises with the regime over basic operational matters. The UN pays millions of dollars — $11.5mn in 2022, or $81.6mn in total since 2014, according to its own data — for its staff to stay at the Four Seasons Hotel in Damascus, which is majority owned by businessman Samer Foz. He and the hotel itself were sanctioned by the US in 2019 over their financial ties to Assad.
Francesco Galtieri, until this month a senior UN official in Damascus, said accommodation was “one of those services for which the UN does not have much of a choice — due to the lack of infrastructure availability”. The UN regularly requested regime approval to use alternative accommodation but this was not granted, he added.
The regime also siphons off millions of dollars in humanitarian assistance by forcing international aid agencies to use an unfavourable official exchange rate, when the parallel market is more widely used. The money raised in this way is used to prop up the central bank’s foreign reserves, experts say. Since the Syrian pound began a downward spiral in 2019, the UN said it has pushed for a better exchange rate for international aid, which has only been granted on three occasions.
Co-operation between the Syrian government and aid groups dates back to the onset of the country’s civil war in 2011. The UN and international agencies rapidly increased their presence in the country, expecting Assad’s downfall. This was meant to be a quick fix, albeit one that cost the west billions of dollars and called for concessions to Damascus that ran counter to humanitarian principles.
But Assad endured, eventually regaining control over most of the country, backed militarily by Russia and Iran. Yet the concessions that aid agencies had offered were not renegotiated.
Aid groups over the years have consistently conceded to regime demands, fearful of losing access and under pressure to keep humanitarian help flowing. This points to the impossible moral dilemma they face: either play by the government’s rules or deny aid to needy Syrians.
UN bodies and aid groups are required to partner with government-affiliated agencies, according to Syrian sources, aid workers and experts. The main government-linked groups are the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, run by Assad associate Khaled Hboubati, and the Syria Trust for Development, founded by Asma al-Assad, the president’s wife, who still has heavy influence over its operations.
SARC is the main UN partner in Syria and wields considerable power over international NGOs. Its aid efforts — which, like all aid programmes in Syria, must be approved by a government committee with input from various ministries and intelligence branches — have received additional sign-off from the state’s security apparatus, suggesting they help to direct aid efforts. Aid groups say obtaining these permissions is a significant obstacle to their work.
Both organisations are leading the post-quake disaster relief efforts in Syria. Neither responded to written requests for comment from the FTs.
Almost a quarter of the top 100 suppliers listed as receiving UN procurement funds between 2019-2021 were companies either sanctioned by the US, EU or the UK, or owned by sanctioned individuals, according to a report co-authored by Karam Shaar, a political economist at the Middle East Institute think-tank.
The report concluded that UN agencies “do not sufficiently incorporate human rights safeguards in their procurement practices . . . which exposes them to significant reputational and actual risk of financing abusive actors”.
The UN said that no companies or individuals included on international sanctions lists are contracted by UN entities in Syria. It said ownership of companies by individuals involved in human rights violations or other major crimes “represents a reason for the UN to disqualify a vendor”, but added that it required a “‘standard of proof beyond reasonable doubt’ of engagement in proscribed practices”. “Concerned UN entities” were looking into some of the report’s specific allegations, it added.
The UN said it had adopted more stringent practices since the period covered by the data, and had even terminated some contracts.
During 12 years of brutal conflict billions of dollars of assistance have been distributed via organisations such as the UN. The regime’s hold on the aid sector was an “open secret,” said an aid worker formerly in Damascus.
Survivors of the quake in areas of north-west Syria controlled by rebel groups and Turkey, which backs the opposition, were forced to dig families from the rubble as no international help arrived for almost a week. The slow response was a consequence of Damascus and its allies on the UN Security Council barring transit via all but one border crossing, which was damaged in the quake. Further crossings were eventually opened.
NGOs and aid groups had “crossed every red line in their efforts to provide principled aid to the Syrian people”, said the aid worker. “The government knew they could push us. We almost were enabling their behaviour.”
The Assad regime routinely restricts access to areas in need, diverts aid towards its preferred communities and harasses NGO staff, according to separate reports by Natasha Hall, senior fellow on the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and Human Rights Watch. These were based on dozens of interviews and publicly available documents.
Organisations seeking to work around the constraints were frequently penalised, typically by restricting access and staff visas, the reports said.
The influx of funds and aid into Syria since the quake, which killed almost 6,000 people in Syria, and close to 46,000 in neighbouring Turkey, has only added to concerns about a regime adept at exploiting weaknesses in the system. Experts have also noted instances of relief being restricted or seized at regime checkpoints and convoys heading into north-west or north-east Syria being stopped.
Emma Beals, a non-resident fellow at the Middle East Institute, said she feared Damascus would exploit quake damage to further demolish properties in politically sensitive areas and expropriate land from those it perceives as dissident.
Hall said Damascus had again “succeeded in turning the world’s concern for the suffering of its people into a profit centre”.