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

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.

Bringing my girls home from Damascus


The last time Iqbal Khan saw his children. © Iqbal Khan

A simple case of reuniting two British girls with their father has turned into a Kafkaesque nightmare. Three years after civil war broke out in Syria, Iqbal Khan’s family is torn apart: he is separated from his children and his wife is dead. 

In August 2011, at the height of panic when foreigners and expats were rushing to get out of Syria, a few months after the start of the conflict, Khan, a British citizen who had been working in Damascus for ten years as an IT consultant, applied for a settlement visa for Britain on behalf of his Syrian wife so his young family could leave Syria together. The application was refused. From Syria, Mr Khan appealed to the British Home Office via his local MP on humanitarian grounds. This appeal was also refused. His two girls already held British passports so they would have been able to enter the country, but without their mother.

In August 2012, Mr. Khan was transferred to Dubai by his company and prepared for his family to join him. His wife had stayed behind in Syria with their children to care for her mother following a heart operation. Tragically, a month before his wife and children were due to leave for Dubai in July 2013, his wife was killed by a mortar shell near Abbasiyen square, Damascus. Mr Khan says ‘had my wife been granted entry to Britain back in 2011, my children would have been in Britain safe and well with their mother’.

His two daughters, Habiba, now six-years-old, and Fatima, now four-years-old, were left in the care of their maternal grandparents. Khan expected that being reunited with his children would be easy, but he says the grandparents – staunch Assad supporters – have refused to send the children back to Britain, seeing this as a betrayal of the regime. They have not allowed him to speak to his two girls and say that they would rather the children ‘die in Syria’ than let them leave.

Khan finds himself in a legal vacuum. His lawyers in Damascus have said that his case is not a custody issue as Syrian law recognizes the children to be British and Syrian family law gives the father automatic custody. Britain's Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) have directed Khan to the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol), suggesting that they recognize it as a criminal case. Khan’s legal contacts in Syria say the British government must take up with the matter with the Syrian Foreign Ministry.

The response of the FCO to what appears to be a straightforward case has been curious. They have given Khan advice on how he should respond. But instead of taking action themselves, they have sent him letters of condolence. There is no sign of any Foreign Office contact with the Metropolitan police that would initiate proceedings with Interpol.

Khan is stuck. The Foreign Office’s Alistair Burt and others have advised him not to travel to Syria because they cannot guarantee his safety: both roads from the Lebanese capital Beirut and the Jordanian capital of Amman to Damascus are controlled by different pro-Assad and anti-Assad militias. Rather, they suggest that he contact the Czech and Hungarian Embassies in Damascus and initiate legal proceedings against the grandparents. But any proceedings would be far more effective if facilitated by a government with diplomatic influence and connections rather than an IT consultant acting alone.

While the FCO has not replied to my queries regarding Iqbal Khan’s children, the unwanted media attention, even from small fish like me, has elicited a pithy email to the father saying: ‘I believe the FCO has been providing advice to you about your children in Syria, including how to get in touch with NGOs and the police. I would be interested to know whether there has been any progress on the case since you last contacted us?’

It is hardly surprising that Khan accuses the Foreign Office of failing British citizens and questions whether the situation would be different if he had another name or skin colour. He echoes similar sentiments to the family of Abbas Khan who is thought to have been killed by the Syrian regime’s security services last December. Abbas' brother, Shahnawaz Khan, has accused the British government of not doing enough and has stated that here in Britain, some citizens are more equal than others.

With additional research by Lydia James.

Why I became a persona non grata in Tunisia

Poverty in Tunisia

Poverty is widespread in parts of Tunisia. © Tam Hussein

‘Free to live it all’ says the advert by the Tunisian tourist board on a London black cab. I used to think that, after the Jasmine revolution, this was more or less true. But after my last experience I have had to reassess that opinion. Tunisia’s democratic project has kept me interested precisely because I have been at the receiving end of Middle Eastern police states. I have spent a significant period of time in this small country on the Mediterranean and written many an article about it. However, my work surprisingly hit a nerve. It seems I went beyond acceptable criticism and annoyed the interior ministry so much that I, an insignificant hack, became a security threat to the country.

I need to give some background here. Several months ago I did some field research on the state of poverty, health, education and agriculture in the governorate of Kairouan. I did not rely on the accounts of the sons and daughters of the ancien régime or on Paris-educated stringers. My research was based on salt of the earth interviews. I had to do field research because official statistics were unreliable and could have been massaged by the previous regime. As a result, I am probably the West’s foremost expert on the Kairouan governorate, simply because no-one cares about this part of Tunisia. The testimonies and photographs I took revealed a nuanced Tunisia that is extremely politicized.

What becomes clear is that the revolution may have decapitated the head of state but, because it was a relatively peaceful transition, government structures survived unscathed. This meant that the old order remained and is desperately trying to hold on to power while the new order wants to realize its revolutionary ideals. This is not a particularly radical theory; that is just how the laws of history work.

One of the remnants of the old order is the security services controlled by the ministry of interior. They operate under the remit of keeping the nation safe. But the truth is that anyone who bypasses officialdom becomes a threat. My work required me to speak to those who lived in hovels, not bureaucrats or those tortured by the previous regime.

The interior ministry didn’t like the fact that I spoke to Salafists, and to Ansar Sharia supporters who accused the former of stoking up fear of terrorism. I spoke to people like Murad, an activist who had suffered 12 years of back-breaking hard labour. I visited dusty settlements that had not seen a government official since the floods of 1997, when military helicopters dropped off some food. I took snaps of abandoned homes that fell victim to the greed of the clan of Ben Ali, the ousted President. I spoke to a woman who complained about Ben Ali’s family members who sold the local hospitals bad meat and suffered the consequences of whistleblowing. I spoke to government employees who admitted that the previous regime had poured perfume in to the sewers and planted palm trees for a Ben Ali visit and then abandoned a UNESCO world heritage site to its fate, taking the palm trees with them. I met women who lived on $80 a month and families which had lost children because it was either rent or medicine. I went inside insect-filled sheds and goat pens that served as homes. I spoke to brilliant Tunisian girls whose hopes had been dashed because of a local government that didn’t care. I spoke to doctors and medics who begged me to get this information out there to put pressure on the powers that be.

Tunisia was not what it seemed, they kept on saying. The old order wanted to sabotage the revolution. I didn’t write the sanitized report that the local security services and potentates who ran the governorate like a fiefdom wanted me to write. That was the real problem.

Consequently, on the pretext of an old Ben Ali law which stated that all foreign journalists had to be supervised, they worked a two-man shift on me for a month, 24 hours a day. According to a source I knew inside the interior ministry they wrote half a dozen or so reports on me, tapped my phone, followed me, rifled through my things and apparently tried to intimidate me. But unless he’s hitting you in the ribs it is hard to be frightened of fat men with tartar teeth or mustachios who don’t use deodorant. This is probably why the reports described me as arrogant, not giving the secret services due deference. I left the governorate happy that this wealth of information would lead to effective aid delivery. But that was not to be.

When I returned to Tunisia with a health consultant who would do a more in-depth needs-analysis on the governorate, I was flagged up in passport control. It was under the pretext of security. The men in cheap grey suits and jackets took my passport away. Apparently there had been some explosions a few days ago and coincidentally a guy with the same surname and country of origin had been behind it. An agent who was meant to be inconspicuous sat next to me, smoking, listening and said in English: ‘I don’t understand English.’  

Agents tried to unsettle me using classic police-state tactics. ‘You look like a good man, this is just between you and me, we are just following orders, what do you think you have done?’ Another might say, ‘you see that man over there? He’s been here for five days.’ And then a bit of Orwellian indoctrination: ‘Ah, you know, people regret the revolution these days because of the way things are going. They want to feel safer like in the past.’ In the end they detained me without bashing my head in like in the days of Ben Ali. They didn’t tell me why I was being detained, nor did they allow me to respond. As they escorted me to the plane that would return me to London they proffered sugary hypocrisy ‘marhaban bik, marhaban bik’ – welcome, welcome. ‘Get in touch with the embassy and clear it all up. See you soon.’

Back at Heathrow airport I was met by a Tunisian official asking me what I had done that had caused such a security stir in his country. ‘You tell me,’ I countered. ‘I just wrote a few pieces on poverty…’ Before I could even finish, he said, ‘that’s it’. He knew why I had been sent back. He sighed stoically and handed over my passport as if this was completely normal in Tunisian democracy.  

How can the UN envoy to Syria be so blind?

an FSA youth
A Free Syrian Army youthTam Hussein
Many Syrians don’t understand UN and Arab League envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi. They don’t understand how he can say that the regime and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) are tearing the country apart piece by piece, as if the battle were an equal one. The tiny village of Dwerkeh and its FSA brigade, Zahir Baybar, offers a good example of why Brahimi’s words don’t make sense to them. The village of Dwerkeh, nestled on Jebel Akrad (the Mount of the Kurds) is a collection of breeze-block homes whose inhabitants are farmers and fruit growers. Most are related to each other in some way or another.

Jebel Akrad is under FSA control, with Dwerkeh falling under the authority of the Zahir Baybar brigade. It is led by a native of the village, Ahmed Kabbool, a religious 23-year-old professional footballer. There is nothing strange about this 23-year-old except for the fact that he mixes his love of computer games with constant self-improvement. He reads Marx, Hegel, Sophocles, Nietzsche and Dan Brown. Dan Brown?! ‘There is much to be gleaned from The Da Vinci Code,’ he insists.  Ahmed Kabbool defected from the army once the first anti-regime demonstrations began in Lattakia city. His older brother Mohammed, a former artillery officer, assists him in the brigade. The rest of the 20-odd fighters are all from the village. Most are no older than 25; all of them live off the fat of the land.

The brigade doesn’t possess any heavy guns – they have one pump action shotgun, Kalashnikovs, Russian sniper rifles and an M16 belonging to Abu Zayn. Abu Zayn says that it’s ‘a mosquito bite to a tank. To take out a tank takes self-sacrifice.’ They also have explosives concocted by Ahmed Kabbool, who learnt how to make them via the internet. ‘We lost five lives learning how to make these bombs,’ he says.

The brigade, Ahmed Kabbool says, formed when the men of the village feared an imminent army attack – most brigades I visited in the surrounding areas began this way. Their stash of weapons came about when they stormed a weapons store. For the first battle that the brigade took part in, they had to share seven Kalashnikovs and their hunting rifles. Over 150 army trucks came into Jebel Akrad. The brigade fought until they ran out of bullets; then, says Ahmed Kabbool, ‘we pegged it and the soldiers did what they did to the village’ – a subtle hint that some of the women in the village were raped.

That night there were discussions over tea and cigarettes about the best way to protect the village. Mohsin, a soldier who had fought two battles and was responsible for feeding 16 mouths, was keen to guard certain vulnerable pathways open to the enemy. Others argued that the best way to respond to the crisis was as and when it happened. The brigade will now vote on the decision. Mohsin was unhappy but says he will accept the vote.  

Part of the brigade’s responsibility is to ensure that the village is safe. Whatever scant resources they have are shared out. There is an optimistic spirit amongst the soldiers. Abu Ra’if’s house was shelled while he was sleeping. I asked him why he was smiling. ‘Praise to God that my neighbour’s house was not hit, for they have a family,’ he replied.

The day we left for Salma, the sky was clear and beautiful. I was apprehensive; helicopters, planes and artillery have a clear view of the surrounding villages. In Salma, the Nabi Yunus artillery point perched on the neighbouring mountain pounded us from 7am till noon. Then the regime soldiers must have had lunch, for there was a lull in the shelling. After lunch they turned their guns on Dwerkeh. We counted 40 shells landing on the village. One shell that landed on a house brought about a round of cheers. I asked Abu Zayn why he was cheering. He replied: ‘The man [who owns that house] ran away because he worked for the Mukhabarat [secret police].’

Baramil barrels
Baramil barrelsTam Hussein
On our way back to Dwerkeh, we met a 90-year-old man who had been struck by a tiny piece of shrapnel, causing a wound the size of a tennis ball. We rushed him to Salma hospital where he was operated on by Doctor Mustafa, who runs the whole shift with two nurses and some volunteers.  Even the hospital had been hit by ‘baramils’, barrels filled with TNT explosives. With shells you can predict their range and direction, you only have to worry about the shrapnel; with a baramil you can do nothing – it is random death. Baramils can take down a six-storey building. No wonder  people turn to religion: you need to believe in an afterlife when death seems so random.

As we returned to Dwerkeh we gritted our teeth, driving through bends at crazy speeds in pitch-black darkness. We used only the LED light on a lighter to guide us; anything bigger than that and the Nabi Yunus guns would fire. Only darkness stopped the shelling.  

Last week, the local brigades gathered to put an end to the Nabi Yunus artillery point. They failed. The loss of life was made worse by the lack of weapons and the lack of expertise. ‘A secondary teacher had planned the attack,’ complained Abu Jihad. Only air power or heavy guns will do the trick – both of which they lack.

There are hundreds of FSA brigades like this in the countryside of Lattakia. With so few resources it is difficult to see how exactly these brigades can be ‘tearing Syria apart’ when it is the regime that kills, maims and punishes a population for not accepting its rule.  Travelling through the region and spending time with several brigades I came across just one anti-tank gun. It is no wonder that the Zahir Baybar brigade in the tiny village of Dwerkeh accuse Lakhdar Brahimi of being myopic.

Crossing into Syria to take up the fight

minerat in Antakya
A minerat in Antakya, on the Turkish-Syrian borderTam Hussein
Ahmed* looks out of place in Antakya. His walk still has traces of the London streets; the tattoo of his postcode is partially visible on his neck, even though he has tried his best to remove it. I am surprised that he’s even here, on the Turkish-Syrian border, and that he hasn’t been picked up by the security services. In fact, according to one of my sources, Syrian brigades are sending many foreigners back, because they are usually a liability. Over the following days I realize that Ahmed was born for this kind of work. He deals with stress well; he seems to thrive on it. ‘It’s the only thing I know well,’ he says. ‘I’ve been fighting all my life.’  

Ahmed grew up on a council estate. He robbed, he fought, he looted and ‘banged up mans’. Ahmed had chosen his path by the time he was 15 and only a drunken brawl saved him. ‘In prison I had plenty of thinking time. I could read and learnt my deen [Islamic faith]. I started looking around me and I realized what I was missing.’

When Ahmed was released he stayed straight – most of the time. He admits he had some lapses, however. ‘I’m walking down the road and girls I know in my area are blowing me kisses – it’s hard, akhi [brother].’ Sometimes he even went back to selling drugs because he couldn’t make ends meet. ‘I even tried to get married and some convert girl is asking me if I was a money-man or a gun-man!’ It was a Jamaican carpenter who had converted to Islam who taught Ahmed the trade that allowed him to go straight. Stability allowed him to catch up with the world. ‘I read Malcolm X, [I read] anything and everything.’ He started to delve into history. ‘I noticed a trend. The West was bombing Iraq when they had put Saddam in power. They allowed Bosnia to get raped yet they are in Mali like a shot. Why? Afghanistan is the same story… you can’t rely on the West; you have to rely on yourself. All I’ve got is heart and knowing how to fight. Syria’s going to go the same way unless I do something about it. I don’t want to live my life thinking I should have done something when I could.’

Ahmed was echoing an interview I had had with Kemal*, a middle-aged professional in a suburban café in South London. ‘Yes, I went to Kandahar in the 1980s [to fight against the Soviets during their war with the Mujahedin in Afghanistan], and I don’t have any regrets. I can tell my children that I did the right thing.’ It was clear to Kemal that Jihad was one of the noblest callings that anyone could go on. However, Kemal put down strict conditions: ‘You take life as the absolute last resort and not because you take pleasure in it.’ Ask Ahmed and you get the same idealism.  ‘Brother, when you become Shahid [martyr], it’s the ultimate testimony. You are putting your life on the line for the sake of justice and against oppression – this is loved by God.’ It struck me that Ahmed wasn’t impressionable; nor was he brainwashed: he had a clear calling.

Ahmed didn’t have a global agenda; he was moved by the idealism that brought Laurie Lee, George Orwell and others to the Spanish Civil War. I asked him what he thought of the 7/7 bombers who killed 52 people in suicide attacks in London in 2005. ‘Akhi, the Prophet – peace and blessings be on him – would love a city like London: he is free to preach Islam, he is protected by the law, that is what he asked for in Mecca but they persecuted him so he went to Medina.’ But can Ahmed manage to keep that sense of chivalry in a bloody civil war?

I asked him whether he thought the Free Syrian Army or the militant Jubhat al-Nusra Front were better. He looked at me as if I might know the answer better than him. ‘God knows best, but I know that Jubhat are doing what the West should be doing: that is why they are respected.’

The test for Ahmed is not just about crossing the Turkish-Syrian border but also the fact that he has to contend with his inexperience and his own past in the midst of a cruel civil war where the lines of good and evil are blurred. The real crossing for Ahmed will not be crossing the physical border but trying to remain principled and good in an environment where man becomes beast. Ahmed will then know whether he can remain truly noble in the degradations of war.

*names changed to protect identities

Soul and the city - words from graffiti artist Mohammed Ali

What are your early memories of graffiti?

Flicking through Subway Art by Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant. Growing up in the 1980s, I remember how the book opened my eyes to New York street art and the hip-hop scene. In those days, the phenomenon hadn’t reached most people yet and it wasn’t about ego, cars and women.

Victor de Jesus

Although I identified with street art, it focused a lot on leaving a ‘tag’ and I didn’t want to just ‘tag’. I wanted to transform something ugly into something beautiful, pointing not towards the glorification of the artist but towards art itself, and its source – thereby leaving an indelible ‘tag’ on earth.

Tell us about your latest projects...

I’ve just completed a mural in East London near the Olympic Stadium. It featured the iconic image of Tommy Smith and his Black Power salute, representing the idea that sometimes the power of your principles can, if need be, go against your country. I’m working on the next mural to go up in East London, around the Brick Lane area. Another major project I’m working on is with the organization Soul City Arts, delivering Writing On the Wall 2 in London – a theatrical performance of live art and performance poetry.

What are you passionate about politically?

Injustice. I can’t stand it. I get upset about Palestine; I got upset about apartheid in South Africa. I get upset about regimes trying to censor ideas and prevent human beings living in dignity. I get upset about governments wanting you to behave in a certain way or condemning you for the way you look.

Who or what inspires you?

The city inspires me. It compels me to inject life back into the urban spaces we live in. It tells me to take back ownership of our public spaces, take the power away from the authorities who control how our spaces look and feel and return it to the people. Why do our cities have to be so grey and ugly? Colour injects soul back to the city.

What’s your biggest fear?

My biggest fear is not being able to do art and represent a voice coming from my urban British Muslim background. I think it would eat me up. My art has been embraced and celebrated by the mainstream, and there are many communities which recognize the transcendent nature of art – especially street art. I’ve spoken to audiences at the British Museum and the Greenbelt Festival but, sadly, support for my work is most lacking from my own community’s institutions, especially those which have the financial and cultural clout to support me. They see no value in it. They don’t recognize that it’s a space for dialogue, interaction and engagement; a place where prejudices are broken down. I’ve worked with white working-class pupils and they have told me how their perceptions have changed forever.

Where do you feel most at home?

I was born and raised in Birmingham, England. I grew up with Irish and South Asian kids in our neighbourhood. My late father, who migrated to Birmingham, felt intrinsically part of the city’s social fabric. That’s probably why, in spite of the fact that I’ve worked in many parts of the world, including New York and London, I’m drawn back to Birmingham. Many might perceive Birmingham as segregated and it’s true, it does have pockets of different communities that engage little with one another. My hope, though, is to reconnect these disparate communities to show that we share more commonalities than differences.

Tam Hussein is an award-winning writer and journalist who has spent several years in the Middle East and North Africa.

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