In-Depth: Sponsoring Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) introduced this bill to ensure U.S. funds don’t go to the Assad regime in Syria:
“The U.S. has donated over $6 billion to UN operations in Syria, including over $435 million in 2018 alone. While we would like to believe our money is going to help Syrian civilians suffering under the brutality of the Assad regime, reports have indicated that this aid underwrites Assad’s killing machine and helps to solidify his grip on power. The Stop UN Support for Assad Act of 2019 will ensure that the millions we send every year to UN operations in Syria go towards funding humanitarian programs to help innocent Syrians instead of padding Assad’s bloody coffers.”
Original cosponsor Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH) adds:
“I am deeply troubled that the United Nations is allowing Assad to control how and where to spend international aid, especially by paying millions to entities controlled by the regime and its cronies. Instead, this common-sense legislation requires the UN to properly vet its partners, and if it fails to do so, would redirect U.S. funds for Syria from the UN to USAID, so that they are more carefully used in the areas that need it most. Americans deserve to know that their hard-earned tax dollars are not propping up a war criminal like Assad, nor supporting Iranian or Russian forces. It is unfortunate that the United Nations is more concerned with the appearance of reconstruction than ensuring that funds are spent appropriately.”
The Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees supports this bill. Its executive director, Bennett Gross, says:
“In delivering humanitarian relief into war-torn Syria, MFA has seen first-hand the Assad Regime’s callous disregard for its people and country. The cruelty has been overwhelming in scale and scope. It is extremely unfortunate that the UN works with the Assad regime to send international aid, which is so often diverted to non-humanitarian purposes and to supporting the further brutalization of the innocent people of Syria. TThis legislation will get to the heart of the matter – stopping use of these funds for the Assad regime’s war effort against its own people.”
Opponents of this bill argue that it would sacrifice what little leverage the U.S. still has in Syria through aid money. The UN also argues that in places like Syria, it’s difficult to operate outside the auspices of government, especially when it has to also look to protect its staff. In 2017, the UN’s chief spokesman, Stephane Dujarric, said, “We source locally and there are many places where the local economy is either state-owned or we have very limited options.”
This legislation has seven bipartisan cosponsors, including five Republicans and two Democrats. Americans for a Free Syria, Citizens for a Safe and Secure America (also a Syria advocacy group), and the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees support this legislation.
Of Note: Some reports indicate that the Assad regime routinely siphons off UN aid, using the funds to finance blood banks for its military, subsidize its fuel industry, and provide money to charities connected to the Assad family. In September 2018, Foreign Affairs reported that “a large part of the blame” for the Assad regime’s continued existence laid with the UN-led humanitarian effort in Syria. According to the article:
“UN agencies such as the World Health Organization (WHO) have permitted the Assad regime to take control of the $30 billion international humanitarian response, using donor funds to skirt sanctions and subsidize the government’s war effort. The bulk of these billions in diverted funds are from the same Western governments that imposed the sanctions.”
However, unlike this bill, the article didn’t suggest that Western governments should cut off funding to the UN for Syria relief efforts. Instead, it called the Syrian government’s hijacking of humanitarian relief funds a signal of the need for the UN to reform its system for providing aid.
Earlier, in 2017, it was reported that the UN paid at least $18 million to companies with close ties to Bashar al-Assad and his cronies (including some on U.S. and European Union blacklists) in 2016. According to the UN’s annual report on procurement for 2016, these expenses included:
- A $9.5 million bill at the Four Seasons hotel in Damascus, which is co-owned by Syria’s tourism ministry;
- Contracts for telecommunications and security awarded to regime insiders such as Assad’s cousin Rami Makhlouf, who has been on the U.S. Treasury’s blacklist since 2008 (Syriatel, which he owns, was paid $164,300 was three different UN bodies, including UNHCR and UNICEF, and Qasioun, a security firm he owns, was paid $105,043 by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine); and
- Money to a charity set up by Assad’s wife.
Testifying before the House’s Middle East panel in late October 2019, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker told Rep. Wilson that while “[e]nsuring integrity is a constant challenge” with aid money to Syria, “it’s something we work on very closely with our UN partners.”
Summary by Lorelei Yang
(Photo Credit: watchsmart via Flickr / Creative Commons)