New Internationalist

Why is Britain using a suspect charity to deliver aid to Syria?

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How $418 million of British aid money could be helping the Assad regime. Tam Hussein reports.

Freedom House
Is humanitarian aid getting to the people who need it? Freedom House

Leading members of the Syrian Parliamentary Affairs Committee have called on the British government to radically rethink the way it delivers its aid package in Syria.

The government has committed over £600 (US$1,009) million to dealing with the humanitarian crisis in Syria, according to Fred Robarts, Humanitarian Advisor Syria Crisis Unit for the Department for International Development (DFID).

This makes Britain the second biggest donor in the international community. Of this sum £249 (US$418) million will be delivered through Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), an organization with which Britain and UN agencies work closely.

But the use of SARC has been severely criticized by Fadel Moghrabi, a heart-and-chest surgeon at Kings College, London. In a passionate speech, he urged the government not to deliver aid via SARC.

The close relationship that exists between SARC senior management and the Syrian regime cannot be ignored

At first glance Moghrabi’s call may seem inappropriate. Delivering aid is a complex process and there are many dedicated SARC volunteers who have lost their lives trying to help those caught up in the brutal conflict.

But there are deeper reasons why SARC in particular has been singled out, not only by Moghrabi but also by NGOS, members of the Syrian opposition and medical experts from the Syrian diaspora.

Unlike other Red Cross and Red Crescent organizations, SARC is deeply compromised. Joseph Sweid, State Minister for Red Crescent Affairs, made this explicit when he told Syria’s Official News Agency, SANA, that SARC was an integral part of the Syrian Prime Ministry.

The president of SARC, Abdur Rahman Attar, has a close relationship with the Assad regime. He is a product of the union between government and industry engineered by Badr al-Din Shallah between 1979 and 1982. Under such a system only those with close ties to the regime could succeed.

Attar’s family has monopolies and interests in pharmaceuticals, insurance, banking, tourism and agriculture. The Attar family represents the interests of transnationals such as Novartis, Roche, Banque Bemo, Audi Bank, Syrian & Gulf Bank, United Insurance Company and International Money Exchange Company. Attar also represents the the Carlton Group, Alitalia, Ericsson, Sony and IBM. In Syria such business success cannot happen with hard graft alone; a close relationship must exist between business and state.

The Syrian Diaspora in Canada have accused Attar (a Canadian national), of allowing his properties to be used by the security services for the purposes of torture.

SARC has vehemently denied these accusations and insists that it is a neutral actor, stating: ‘We are gravely concerned, and stress that these allegations are not only untrue, but are an affront to the sacrifices our staff and volunteers continue to make to gain access and provide humanitarian aid to all Syrian people in need, regardless of their nationality, religion or political affiliation.’

A recent report by the Geneva-based Assessment Capacities Project states that no-one really knows where the humanitarian aid goes

However, the close relationship that exists between the upper echelons of SARC senior management and the regime cannot be ignored, especially as, according to a New York Times report, 70 per cent of aid remains within government held territory, and 90 per cent of medical buildings have been targeted by the regime.

A letter from Doctors Without Borders to the UN’s High Level Group on Syria in 16 Dec 2013 describes what happens on the ground:

‘The situation today is that almost all international humanitarian aid transits through the Syrian capital. The United Nations agencies and the international aid organizations providing this aid are subjected to strict control measures by the government. Syrian authorities greatly limit the number of international staff in Damascus and rarely authorize them to travel outside the capital. They also impose aid to be distributed through state controlled bodies – mainly the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) – which alone evaluate the needs and select the beneficiaries.

’Without doubt, SARC volunteers and employees have demonstrated exemplary dedication and professionalism in their work. They are nevertheless under great pressure from the Syrian government, whose policy is to limit or prohibit the distribution of humanitarian aid.’

A recent report by the Geneva-based Assessment Capacities Project states that no-one really knows where the humanitarian aid goes. According to Fred Robarts, the DFID ensures that aid reaches its target by getting partners to send through photographs of it being delivered. But there is no way of making sure that aid is not then redirected to regime supporters or militia.

Indeed, there have been photos of World Food Program aid being distributed in Quseir in western Syria by regime soldiers and questions have been raised more recently as to whether aid delivered through SARC last month ever reached Hasakeh province.

The drastic rethink that Moghrabi and others are calling for highlights the need for cross-border aid and delivery through more effective Syrian diaspora charities. The small charity, Sanabil al-Sham, for example, was able to use its network to get food into the Yarmouk camp while the UN was constrained by the Syrian regime which allowed only seven days access.

With so much money and so many lives are at stake, both donors and beneficiaries deserve to know that humanitarian aid is getting to the places it needs to go. Snaps of staff delivering packages are hardly adequate. Moghrabi’s call highlights yet again the confusion of policymakers when it comes to getting aid to those who desperately need it in Syria.

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