Bashar Al-Assad
Bashar Al-Assad Reuters

The UN has awarded contracts worth tens of millions of dollars to people closely associated with Syrian President, Bashar Al-Assad, as part of an aid program that critics fear is increasingly at the whim of the government in Damascus, The Guardian newspaper in Britain revealed Monday.

Businessmen whose companies are under U.S. and EU sanctions have been paid substantial sums by the UN mission, as have government departments and charities – including one set up by the president’s wife, Asma Al-Assad, and another by his closest associate, Rami Makhlouf, the newspaper found.

The UN says it can only work with a small number of partners approved by President Assad and that it does all it can to ensure the money is spent properly.

“Of paramount importance is reaching as many vulnerable civilians as possible,” a spokesman said. “Our choices in Syria are limited by a highly insecure context where finding companies and partners who operate in besieged and hard to reach areas is extremely challenging.”

Critics, however, believe the UN mission is in danger of being compromised. They believe aid is being prioritized in government-held areas and argue UN money is effectively helping to prop up a regime responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of its own citizens.

UN insiders admitted to The Guardian the relief mission in Syria is the most expensive, challenging and complex it has ever undertaken.

But the contentious decisions it has had to make are now exposed for the first time by a Guardian analysis of hundreds of contracts it has awarded since the operation began in 2011.

The analysis shows that:

The UN has paid more than $13 million to the Syrian government to boost farming and agriculture, yet the EU has banned trade with the departments in question for fear of how the money will be used;

The UN has paid at least $4 million to the state-owned fuel supplier, which is also on the EU sanctions list;

The World Health Organization (WHO) has spent more than $5 million to support Syria’s national blood bank, but this is being controlled by Assad’s defense department. Documents seen by the newspaper show funds spent on blood supplies came directly from donors who have economic sanctions against the Syrian government, including the UK. They also show the WHO had “concrete concerns” about whether blood supplies would reach those in need, or be directed to the military first;

Two UN agencies have partnered with the Syria Trust charity, an organization started and chaired by President Assad’s wife, Asma, spending a total of $8.5 millon. The first lady is under both U.S. and EU sanctions;

UNICEF has paid $267,933 to the Al-Bustan Association, owned and run by Rami Makhlouf, Syria’s wealthiest man. He is a friend and cousin of Assad, and his charity has been linked to several pro-regime militia groups;

Makhlouf runs the mobile phone network Syriatel, which the UN has also paid at least $700,000 in recent years. Makhlouf is on the EU sanctions list and was described in U.S. diplomatic cables as the country’s “poster boy for corruption”;

Contracts have been awarded across UN departments with companies run by or linked to individuals under sanctions.

In addition to the above, The Guardian’s analysis of the United Nations own procurement documents show its agencies have done business with at least another 258 Syrian companies, paying sums as high as $54 million and £36 million, down to $30,000. Many are likely to have links to Assad, or those close to him.

The UN, for its part, says that its relief work has already saved millions of lives and argues it has to work with the regime if it wants to operate in Syria.

The UN also pointed out it does not have to abide by EU or U.S. sanctions. It only needs to abide by UN sanctions.

But one serving UN official admitted to The Guardian there was unease within some of its agencies about the grip Assad’s government has on the relief effort.

The official, who has worked extensively inside Syria, said that while operating inside the country was challenging, the UN’s position was disappointing. Another said that all conflicts presented difficult working conditions but the “situation in Syria just doesn’t happen anywhere else”.

It has previously been revealed through the “Panama Papers” that Assad's regime has been able to circumvent international sanctions and fund its war effort through shadow companies.

The French newspaper Le Monde recently reported that three Syrian companies, Pangates International, Maxima Middle East Trading, and Morgan Additives Manufacturing, used the services of Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca to create shadow companies in the Seychelles.

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