The United Nations has been awarding contracts worth tens of millions of dollars to figures and companies linked to the Syrian regime of Bashar Al-Assad, potentially violating sanctions by western nations.
In a report published yesterday by the London-based NGO, the Syrian Legal Development Programme (SLDP) and the Observatory of Political and Economic Networks (Open), it was revealed that almost 47 per cent of UN procurement funding in Syria was given to those figures and businesses tied to the Assad regime and its human rights abuses between 2019 and 2020.
Furthermore, almost 23 per cent of those procurements benefitted individuals sanctioned by the United States, United Kingdom and the European Union, meaning the contracts likely indirectly violated those sanctions.
In one of the cases detailed in the report, a company reportedly affiliated with the President's younger brother, Maher Al-Assad obtained contracts worth around $2.3 million from the World Health Organisation (WHO), World Food Programme (WFP) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
In another case, a company named Desert Falcon received over $1 million in contracts from the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). That company is co-owned by Fadi Saqr, the leader of a pro-regime militia known as the National Defence Forces (NDF), which is believed to have committed the infamous Tadamon massacre in 2013 that killed 41 people.
On a much larger scale, $21.5 million in contracts from UN agencies were awarded to the Rami Kabalan Group, a firm owned by an individual associated with the brother of the prominent Syrian businessman, Rami Makhlouf, who is subject to multiple US sanctions.
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A common finding that the report highlighted was the lack of transparency in the UN's procurement processes overall, with over $75 million worth of procurements having been won by businesses in which the supplier's name is concealed due to reasons relating to security or privacy.
According to the report, Syria was at the top of the list of countries receiving aid with the backing of the UN, through that practice of suppressing the identity of suppliers.
Another prominent trend, the report found, was the practice of UN agencies in engaging private suppliers in large contracts, which effectively reduced competition and increased the chances of regime-affiliated businesses applying for the contracts.
There was also the use of front companies which emerged in the report, which is a common practice used by the Assad regime and its associates – both in Syria and abroad – throughout the past decade to help win contracts and circumvent sanctions.
Speaking in a panel discussion on the report – hosted by the Middle East Institute (MEI) – Natasha Hall, a senior Fellow at the Centre for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS), stated that "the level of abuse is incredible, but it's highly credible if you understand the situation in Syria".
Over the years, the UN and its agencies have been found to closely coordinate with the regime and its affiliates on multiple occasions, such as its cooperation with the regime-infiltrated Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), the reported attempt to return displaced Syrian refugees in the Rukban camp to regime territory, and the WHO's use of the sanctioned Syrian airliner, Cham Wings, to deliver aid to Libya.
While the UN maintains that it deals with all sides in the ongoing conflict and that it is necessary to coordinate with Damascus on many issues, the revelation that it has awarded contracts worth tens of millions to businesses and figures directly associated with the Assad regime – even those responsible for massacres and atrocities – provides further evidence of the extent of that cooperation, and the possible violation of western sanctions in the process.
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