The Assad regime controls humanitarian aid efforts for political gains, appropriating aid meant for those in need, humanitarian workers say.

Mousa*, a manager who worked as procurement and logistics manager in the humanitarian sector in Syria, called it quits six months ago. He couldn’t cope with the pressure mounted by the Syrian regime.

Mousa was “pressured on a regular basis” through those who hired him. He gave the account of his ordeal to the Syrian Association for Citizens Dignity (SACD), a civil rights movement established by Syrians, explaining why he quit his job.

Eight years ago, when he got a job at the United Nations through some contacts, he said he wasn’t aware about the menacing reach the Syrian regime had in the organisation.

“I didn’t imagine that there would be interference in all financial details, employees’ salaries, names of beneficiaries and even the organisation’s funding,” he said.

Mousa was among the 45 humanitarian workers from 29 international and local Syrian organisations in the regime-held areas who were interviewed for a report published on Thursday by the organisation.

The report found that the Syrian regime was directly influencing aid organisations to weaponize humanitarian assistance for political gains, as well as appropriating the aid meant for those in need. It also found an unspoken agreement between the regime and aid organisations operating in the regime-controlled areas.   

In practice, it means the regime determines who benefits from aid assistance and who does not; and appoints staff, hires employees, directs help and benefits only to its supporters, the aid workers say.

They also blame the regime for setting up “independent” framed Civil Society Organisations to appear in political negotiations as representatives of “civil society” as well as collecting international funds.

More than 50 per cent of aid workers who spoke to SACD said the Syrian military directly or unofficially intervened in their work.

“Politicising aid”

“The acceptance of such interference permeates all aid organisations, international and Syrian; there is now a dangerous symbiosis between these organisations and the regime’s institutions,” SACD has warned.

That’s a sentiment that Ibrahim Olabi, a lawyer at Guernica 37, Int Justice Chambers and founder of Syrian Legal Development Programme shares.

“The problem is not the regime on its own. The UN agencies and states funding those NGOs are allowing this to happen, saying that ‘we don’t want to politicise aid’,” Olabi told TRT World.

“The regime needs these organisations and their aid to be able to feed the people they control,’ Olabi said, noting that the international organisations and donors behind them need to exercise more leverage.

“In my opinion it’s not politicising. On the other hand the regime is politicising the aid and it’s eventually harming more people.”

Olabi said that by international law, and the UN peace-keeping parameters, “the government or the parties in armed conflict must facilitate aid, not intervene with it.” But the real question, he argues, is where the aid is going, and if it’s going to finance more crimes or abuses.

Around 44 per cent of interviewees said they believe that the Syrian regime military and militias was seizing more than 25 per cent of the humanitarian aid that was aimed at being distributed to regime-controlled areas. But 16 per cent of the aid workers said it was much higher, up to 75 per cent of the aid.

Syrian refugees walk through a camp for displaced muddied by recent rains near the village of Kafr Aruq , in Idlib province, Syria, Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021.
Syrian refugees walk through a camp for displaced muddied by recent rains near the village of Kafr Aruq , in Idlib province, Syria, Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021. (AP)

Over 4 million people, meanwhile, fear a final showdown by the Syrian military and allies in Idlib, the last major opposition stronghold that is also largely isolated from the world.

The majority of current Idlib residents reside in the camps and are in need of urgent access to basic humanitarian assistance amid isolation.

The Syrian regime on the other hand has been insisting on the delivery of international aid through Damascus instead of border gates from neighbouring Turkey -- what human rights organisations see as a method of forcing Idlib into submission.

Most recently in July, the regime’s ally Russia used its veto power at the UN Security Council to reduce the number of border crossings into Syria.

SACD spokesperson Haya Atassi told TRT World that the information the aid workers gave deciphered the Syrian regime’s method of manipulating aid to deliberately starve opposition-held areas.

The Syrian regime is “leading to the forced displacement of entire populations, not to mention blackmailing UN agencies and other organizations, to control the aid and use it to serve its own political and military interests,” Atassi said.

One aid worker still tied with the UN, Meera* said “all staff were in fear of being called for interrogation if they showed any objection to the interference.”

Over ten years into the Syrian war, the majority of the international community is still hesitant to repair political relations with the country’s regime leader Bashar al Assad.

They blame the regime leader Bashar al Assad for cracking down on the widespread protest in 2011 --- what turned into a full-blown war that killed 400,000 people and created an unprecedented refugee crisis by displacing more than 50 per cent of the population.

As the European Union and the United States stand behind their sanctions against the regime, a trend of warming ties with the regime seems to be slowly taking over the Gulf.

The United Arab Emirates has recently sent two planes of humanitarian aid directly to Damascus. 

Atassi said, “there must be an independent, objective audit of how their funds are being used by the UN agencies and international and Syrian organizations working on the ground to prevent aid manipulation and interference by the Syrian regime in furtherance of its repressive, criminal agenda.”