UN paid 'millions of pounds' to Bashar al-Assad allies on EU sanctions list

The United Nations has paid millions of pounds to Syrian companies and businessmen on European blacklists, many of whom close associates of President Bashar al-Assad. 

More than $9.5 million (£7m) of UN money has been spent on stays at the Four Seasons hotel in Damascus, which is co-owned by Syria’s tourism ministry, according to the body’s latest annual procurement report. 

Lucrative contracts for telecommunications and security were also awarded to regime insiders including Rami Makhlouf, Assad’s cousin who is sanctioned by the EU and was described in US diplomatic cables as the country’s “poster boy for corruption”.

Two UN agencies have also partnered with the Syria Trust charity, an organisation started and chaired by Assad’s wife, Asma, spending a total of $8.5m. The first lady is under both US and EU sanctions.

The UN 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 the war-torn country.

Officials point to the difficulty of working outside the auspices of the government, and the premium placed on protecting its staff.

“We source locally and there are many places where the local economy is either state-owned or we have very limited options,’’ said Stephane Dujarric, the UN’s chief spokesman. Of UN spending at the Four Seasons, he said: “that’s one place in Damascus that has been cleared for security.’’

While the body is not bound by sanctions imposed by its member countries, the distribution of funds to individuals close to the government raises questions about the UN’s ability to act independently. 

“Any money going to Assad and his allies shows that the UN is not impartial but is in fact helping the largest player in the conflict,’’ said Kathleen Fallon, a spokeswoman for The Syria Campaign, an independent advocacy group. 

“The regime has been responsible for the majority of the deaths, and they are being rewarded. It sends the wrong message.’’

The group accused the UN of losing all impartiality in the six-year civil war in an investigation published last year.   After interviewing dozens of current and former UN staff, researchers accused the body of allowing Assad a veto over the delivery of humanitarian supplies, thereby “enabling” the regime’s use of “sieges as a weapon of war”.   Almost one million people are living in 52 blockaded areas of Syria, of which 49 are under siege by Assad’s forces. 

They said the UN was failing the most desperate by acquiescing in the regime’s policy of denying food and medicine to the 49 rebel-held areas.  

Last year, almost 90 per cent of UN requests for aid deliveries were either ignored or denied by the regime.

One UN official said that these were already “censored at the agency level”, meaning that the number of requests was kept low so as not to “annoy” the authorities.  

The result being that most aid is distributed to areas under regime control.

This has unintentionally bolstered Assad, allowing him to spend less of his own money on aid and more on military operations, as well as allowing him to present himself as a reliable provider of help.

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