The Hague – The Syrian Network for Human Rights today released a report entitled, “How The Syrian Regime Uses the Humanitarian Organizations SARC and STD to Steal Humanitarian Aid”, stressing that alternative means must be devised to deliver humanitarian assistance to those truly in need in regime-held areas.

As the 38-page report explains, Bashar Assad first began nurturing various nascent NGOs after being named president in 2000. More particularly, he enhanced the role of those NGOs which enjoyed and continue to enjoy sustained state subsidization, such as the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC). In tandem with these initiatives, the Syrian regime established full hegemony over those organizations by controlling the appointment of officials in a way that ensures complete government control over the organizations. Bashar Assad’s regime had quickly realized that these organizations would be a vital source of revenue, a realization which drove its decision to co-opt them rather than suppressing them as his father had. Meanwhile, Bashar Assad’s wife Asma founded a number of community-based initiatives and bodies that were subsequently incorporated under the banner of the Syria Trust for Development (STD), which, like the SARC, has been a vital instrument in enabling the Syrian regime to control the humanitarian relief sector. That is to say, the STD and the SARC are both used by the Syrian regime as a form of ‘soft power’, assisting in achieving the regime’s goals, and as a gateway to taking control of donors’ funds and monopolizing international support, with the regime introducing a requirement that all relief and development funds coming from UN bodies and donor states must go through those two organizations.

The report explains how the Syrian regime seized and misused funds intended as humanitarian assistance to achieve its goals and to further control the intended beneficiaries of those funds by controlling the NGOs receiving and managing these monies. The report focuses on the SARC and the STD in particular because they are the two most prominent front organizations or government-organized non-governmental organizations (GONGOs) used by the regime to receive aid funds. In fact, the Syrian regime initially forced UN bodies and donor governments to exclusively work with the SARC as the sole body authorized to receive aid funds. The regime demanded that all international humanitarian agencies should sign agreements and memoranda of understanding with the SARC which dictate that no projects can be implemented or field visits conducted without first obtaining the SARC’s permission. Subsequently, the STD was added as a second organization authorized to receive aid.

The report further reveals that the Syrian regime was keen on establishing full hegemony over the SARC, and the STD, for two reasons – firstly, the SARC has the credibility afforded it by association with the internationally respected reputation and trusted ‘brand names’ of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent, being affiliated with both. Second, the sanctions imposed on the regime and its senior officials do not apply to the SARC which receives direct, sustained and substantial support from several international parties, including UN agencies and bodies, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), not to mention aid given by other nations’ Red Crescent & Red Cross organizations, such as the British Red Cross, Danish Red Cross, Netherlands Red Cross, etc.

As Fadel Abdul Ghany, SNHR Executive Director, says:
“The February 6 earthquakes renewed a discussion we’ve been having since 2015 about the Syrian regime’s theft of humanitarian aid. As such, we decided that we now needed to produce an extensive report shedding light on the Syrian regime’s misuse of the two most prominent organizations in this sector, namely the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and the Syria Truth for Development, to steal UN and international aid. In fact, as much as 90 percent of all aid is stolen, meaning that whatever was sent as humanitarian aid to these bodies is being misused by them to fund the Syrian regime that has been involved in crimes against humanity and war crimes.”

As the report further reveals, with the start of the uprising in 2011, the Syrian regime eliminated the electoral process in the SARC altogether, and began directly appointing officials. This coincided with the introduction of a policy to ensure the loyalty of SARC volunteers and employees, by enlisting more pro-regime personnel at the expense of those opposing such policies within the SARC, using the regime’s well known customary methods of intimidation and oppression, ranging from arbitrary discharge to arrest and detention, as well as directly targeting SARC ambulances and killing paramedics. In this context, the report reveals that no fewer than 54 of the SARC volunteers arrested between March 2011 and October 2023, including three women, are still under arrest and/or forcibly disappeared, while five have died due to torture in regime detention centers in the same period.

Moreover, the report notes that one of the most prominent strategies adopted by the regime to establish hegemony over the SARC and to ensure the loyalty of both officials and employees has been the use of corrupt employment policies based on nepotism. In fact, both nepotism and discrimination have been two of the most visible aspects of corruption within the SARC, which has effectively become an instrument in the hands of the regime used to reward regime clients by giving them aid, regardless of whether or not they actually deserve such aid, while simultaneously punishing dissidents by denying them aid even if they actually deserve it. Needless to say, these practices directly contradict the principle of impartiality, which is a foundational principle for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement that certainly should be upheld by the SARC as a member of the same movement. An additional dimension of corruption in the SARC, the report adds, is the fact that all these types of corruption are taking place amid a complete absence of transparency by the SARC, on one hand, and of any effective accountability mechanisms that donor parties can invoke on the other, including external auditing. That is to say that, while the SARC does provide its donors with reports about the projects the organization is supposedly involved in and about the aid recipients, there is no mechanism in place to verify the authenticity and accuracy of those reports, or to track how much of the funds has been spent and on what. The SARC official website publishes annual and semi-annual reports on the project it has carried out overinveinertain periods of time. However, even a cursory examination of these reports will show that they lack any institutional professionalism and transparency, since they simply list projects that have supposedly been completed and give figures for recipients, but fail to provide any details or to include any evidence of these projects being accomplished.

As the report also reveals, since her husband assumed the Syrian presidency in 2000, Asma Assad has worked tirelessly to establish her own foothold as an influential figure in the Syrian regime. She subsequently founded various projects and initiatives, all of which were eventually incorporated into one umbrella organization called the Syria Trust for Development (STD), which received legal accreditation in April 2007, and was later added to the bodies overseen by the Syrian regime’s Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor. The STD has been promoted as an entity that supports local initiatives, promotes active citizenship and entrepreneurship, and encourages the involvement of civil society in decision-making and development issues. Since its inception, the STD has, amongst other things, established control over Old Aleppo’s markets, and the al-Sulaymaniyya Takiyya, which is a hub for tradesmen in the capital Damascus. Moreover, the STD has established a monopoly over many other sectors, including the development sector. Thanks to its exclusive contracts, the organization receives the lion’s share of international funds intended for reconstruction and early recovery. In addition to this, the STD has established a monopoly over the provision of aid and legal support for internally displaced persons (IDPs) through its ‘first legal response’ program. Meanwhile, although the STD depicts itself as a non-for-profit organization, a wide variety of incidents thoroughly disprove this claim. In fact, the STD itself has been used as a means for generating massive profit under the cover of civil work and humanitarian aid. Some of the companies associated with the STD have earned enormous profits since its foundation through many means, including winning bids for UN projects and managing for-profit projects. Yet, the STD does not disclose any data on its profits and sources of income amid a typical complete lack of any transparency.

The report adds that one of the clearest manifestations of the STD’s endemic corruption is the way in which it provides a murderous authoritarian regime with a civilized, humanitarian facade. Since its inception, the STD has been used to polish the regime’s image, and even provide cover for its crimes. The STD has organized many pro-regime demonstrations and spearheaded numerous propaganda campaigns for the regime. Asma Assad herself has slipped pro-regime political messages into many of the speeches she has delivered at STD events and other events, in which she’s spoken about her husband’s “steadfast” leadership in the face of foreign “conspiracies”. In addition, the STD also supervises many projects and initiatives that support the regime military and exalt its supposed heroism. Similarly, the STD is used in efforts to undermine the international isolation imposed on the regime. Amongst other things, the STD has participated in exhibitions in the UAE, sent samples of Syrian handcrafts to Italy, and been represented in cultural events in different parts of the world, as part of the regime’s efforts to send subliminal messages associating Syria’s culture, history, and people with Asma Assad and her husband.

The report outlines three practices that exemplify the endemic corruption and nepotism in the STD. First, the STD is prominently used to integrate funds intended for humanitarian assistance into the war economy by designating large proportions of aid to support the war efforts. Second, the STD has been used as an instrument to reward regime loyalists and punish dissidents by denying them whatever international aid has not already been stolen by the regime. In this, the STD uses aid from the UN and other donors in an effort to alleviate public anger over the dire economic conditions in regime-held areas. Through that aid, the STD tries to reduce the growing disparity between those in the regime elite and its public support base. This is done by providing aid to regime loyalists, whether or not they deserve or need such aid. Third, even that aid which is intended for loyalists goes through a second round of corruption and nepotism. Many regime loyalists have talked about how they never received aid, even when they deserve it, simply because they do not have any contacts with “wasta” [figures with power, nepotistic influence or insider connections with the regime, typically government officials who can secure privileges for someone]. This shows that outside the regime elite, even regime loyalists do not receive those illusory ‘benefits’ from the STD that Asma Assad has repeatedly mentioned at conferences and in media appearances in an effort to win international support by feigning the appearance of a philanthropist eager to help the poor and needy. This pretence, however, has no relation to reality on the ground.

The report shows how the Syrian regime has succeeded in transforming NGOs, such as the SARC and the STD, into GONGOs, a common phenomenon among oppressive regimes that aim to undermine campaigns involving civil society and to impose total state control over its institutions to achieve their own political and economic goals. The Syrian regime has also created a civil society organization in the STD whose only purpose in existing is to whitewash and promote the regime’s image. Furthermore, the report highlights how the Syrian regime has promoted the SARC and the STD to make them exclusive partners with the UN agencies and donor states. These two organizations have been used to support the Central Bank with hard currency and to seize vast sums of money from the international community, despite the sanctions imposed on the regime.

The report stresses that the SARC has clearly come under the full control of the security authorities since the outbreak of the popular uprising in March 2011. These regime security authorities have misused recipients’ data possessed by the SARC to persecute fugitives and dissidents. Cases have also been documented in which SARC centers have been used for arbitrary detentions. Moreover, the SARC can no longer operate without security clearance, especially in areas under opposition control. The report adds that the Syrian regime has enabled Asma Assad to eliminate civil society competitors in the humanitarian sector and assisted her in crushing other NGOs that opted for independence, so that the regime can exert absolute control over the humanitarian sector through the STD.

The report further stresses that institutions like the SARC and the STD cannot be seen as genuine or independent civil society or humanitarian organizations operating according to the principles of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, since these institutions, which are wholly controlled by the Syrian regime, cannot uphold impartiality, neutrality, and independence.

Moreover, the report concludes that the Syrian regime has exploited international aid by donor states to establish economic monopolies which have been used to amass vast personal wealth for the regime leadership. The regime has also indirectly benefited from UN bids for humanitarian projects established in regime-held areas.

The report calls on donor states to ensure that aid is being delivered to those who truly need it regardless of their political affiliations. This can be achieved, it explains, by imposing effective control mechanisms over the projects being funded and by communicating with organizations receiving those funds in an independent and impartial way to ensure that those organizations are distributing aid properly, and to ensure that executive partners in projects in Syria are not subject to sanctions, or associated with figures subject to sanctions or figures accused of committing grave human rights violations.

The report calls on the international community to condemn the Syrian regime’s control of humanitarian aid and impose sanctions on the regime for violating the rules of international humanitarian law and for transforming the SARC into an instrument wholly controlled by the security authorities which works to prolong the regime’s survival. Moreover, the report calls on the UN to refuse to enter into exclusive partnerships with bodies presided over by the regime to distribute aid, namely the SARC and the STD, and to reject the control of the security forces over the implementation of projects and over who benefits from said projects, and other forms of extortion practiced by the Syrian regime against UN agencies in order to direct aid in its own favor, in addition to making other recommendations.