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France NGO financing Syria militia guilty of war crimes, report says

Smoke rises after the Assad regime carried out airstrikes in Damascus, Syria on 12 July 2017 [Ammar el Bushy/Anadolu Agency]
Smoke rises after the Assad regime carried out airstrikes in Damascus, Syria on 12 July 2017 [Ammar el Bushy/Anadolu Agency]

A French NGO with close ties to the country's far-right and military has been further proven to have directly funded a pro-Assad regime militia in Syria accused of committing numerous war crimes, according to an investigation by the Washington-based Newlines Magazine.

The mass of evidence that the investigation collected – which includes leaked documents, a money trail, and confidential testimonies by whistleblowers – reportedly shows that the NGO named SOS Chrétiens d'Orient (SOSCO) has conducted and continues to carry out fundraising efforts for the pro-Assad militia since 2014.

According to the report, hundreds of thousands of euros were annually sent by SOSCO to Syria, which circumvented international sanctions on the regime by transiting the money through intermediary financial institutions based in Iraq and Lebanon, where the NGO also has offices.

While it was collecting funds in France from unknowing donors, who allegedly believed they were donating to projects such as hospitals in Syria, the money was in fact going to the infamous Christian militia known as the National Defense Forces (NDF) which operates in coordination with the regime.

In that shadowy funding campaign, SOSCO reportedly gave around €46,000 ($56,000) in cash to Simon Al-Wakil, the militia's commander based in the predominantly Christian town of Mhardeh in Hama province.

Dr Samira Mobaied, who serves as the vice president at Syrian Christians for Peace, told the magazine: "We would follow the money to a hospital, for example, that SOSCO claimed to be raising money for in France, only to discover that very little money or equipment had been received."

The NGO was successful in maintaining its campaigns and support, she added, because "The political narrative was that Assad protected minorities, and this was a strong narrative."

READ: Swiss ex-sergeant convicted for leading Christian militia in Syria

That perception has long been propagated by the regime and its supporters, and has managed to gain it legitimacy amongst some parties in the West. Its critics, however, maintain that the regime and its intelligence services do not exclude Christians from the arrest, detention and torture that are regularly conducted.

Militia commanders like Al-Wakil have also been accused of committing numerous war crimes throughout the ongoing decade-long conflict in Syria.

This is not the first time that SOSCO has been implicated in political controversy, as it was found to be part of a network of far-right white supremacist groups operating in Europe and France in particular.

That was proven in April when US Representative and chair of the House Homeland Security Committee Elissa Slotkin, who wrote a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken asking to designate SOSCO as one of the overseas violent white supremacist group which match "the necessary criteria as Foreign Terrorist Organizations."

Meanwhile, until last year, the NGO was designated by France's Ministry of Defence as a "partner". As the only organisation which worked in the Middle East with that status from 2015 to 2020, it operated on the same level of importance as high-tech defence contractors before it was removed without clear reason.

Although organisations such as Mediapart and Bellingcat last year attempted to further prove SOSCO's relationship with the militia, there was not enough evidence to do so and it could not be prosecuted under French law. With this latest investigation, however, the documented money trail apparently meets French legislation's threshold of prosecutable offenses.

The Paris-based human rights lawyer Laurence Greig told the magazine: "The financial link is key. It's the 'smoking gun,' the piece of evidence that links SOSCO with money given to the militia." He outlined that "We would start by initiating the complaint in court against SOSCO. The Syrian militia can be prosecuted in absentia. We have enough to open an investigation against them."

READ: Assad regime persecutes Syrian Christians, says human rights group

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