Congress sounds alarm on weaponization of Syrian aid

By Bryant Harris, Al-Monitor
November 1, 2019

The future of humanitarian aid in Syria is uncertain amid concerns that Turkey and Russia could block it in the northeast amid multi-front violence pitting Ankara and its Arab rebel proxies against Syrian Kurdish fighters and the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

A group of Democratic senators began sounding the alarm bells Thursday that the situation in the northeast could exacerbate a “looming disaster.” The warning comes as a bipartisan group of House lawmakers push legislation that could tear US aid dollars for Syria out of the hands of the United Nations in a bid to shift the assistance to rebel-held territory.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and five other Democratic senators sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo Thursday asking him to reprogram humanitarian aid in Syria “to cope with the humanitarian needs of an influx of Syrian refugees arriving in Iraq.” The letter also requested that the State Department use some of the aid money for “evacuation and relocation” costs for Syrian aid workers at risk of reprisal from the Assad government as Damascus begins to reassert control of the northeast.

“The [Donald] Trump administration opened the door for the nightmare we’re seeing playing out in Syria,” Murphy, the top Democrat on the Senate’s Middle East panel, told Al-Monitor. “The least we can do is help alleviate the suffering, which is why I called on the State Department to help aid workers escape before they can be targeted by Assad.”

Turkey’s current Syria offensive has displaced up to 200,000 Syrians, some 10,000 of whom have fled into Iraqi Kurdistan. Turkey also cracked down on nongovernmental organizations delivering humanitarian aid last year during its offensive against the Syrian Kurds in Afrin, raising fears that Ankara may do so again as it establishes joint patrols of the northeast border with Russia in the same way the Assad government blocks aid access from Jordan.

“The very people that are in most need of this aid are in areas that the regime is going to be reclaiming,” said Erica Hanichak, the government relations director at Americans for a Free Syria. “The regime hasn’t put any money back into helping those areas.”

Both Americans for a Free Syria and Citizens for a Safe and Secure America — another Syria advocacy group — are lobbying Congress to pass bipartisan legislation seeking to end Assad’s weaponization of UN aid.

The top Republican on the House’s Middle East panel — Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina — introduced the Stop UN Support for Assad Act on Monday with the backing of several colleagues on the Free Syria Caucus: Reps. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, and Vicente Gonzalez, R-Texas.

“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,” Wilson said in a statement upon introducing the bill.

The United States has provided more than $6 billion in UN aid for Syria since the war erupted in 2011, including $435 million last year. And while nearly 12 million Syrians are in urgent need of humanitarian aid, the Assad government has routinely blocked its delivery to some of the neediest areas, including the suburbs of Damascus and the area north of Hama.

Damascus also routinely siphons off the aid and has used the funding to finance blood banks for its military, subsidize its fuel industry and provide money to charities connected to the Assad family.

“Ensuring integrity is a constant challenge, but it’s something we work on very closely with our UN partners,” Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker told Wilson while testifying before the House’s Middle East panel earlier this week.

Wilson’s bill would require Pompeo to certify that US-funded UN projects in Syria do not “directly materially support” the Assad government or its armed forces and that Damascus is allowing the aid to go to areas of “the greatest need” unhindered. The mandatory certification would also require the United Nations to establish an independent mechanism that would monitor the aid and ensure that none of it ends up in the hands of the Assad government or its affiliates.

If the State Department cannot make that certification, it would have to reprogram the funding for USAID to directly implement its own humanitarian assistance projects in Syria.

“Money through USAID will probably go to opposition-held areas like Idlib,” said Robert Ford, the former ambassador to Syria who is currently a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute and Yale University. “That’ll just mean more aid up there. Idlib is probably the most desperate.”

Ford also argued that the bill’s language effectively requiring the UN to establish an independent mechanism to oversee the aid would give it more leverage when negotiating with Damascus. The Syrian government forces the UN to house its aid workers at Damascus’ Four Seasons Hotel, allowing its own Samer Foz — a key Assad backer — to rack up $10 million a year.

The Treasury Department sanctioned the hotel — and Foz — in June. Americans for a Free Syria is also pushing Congress to enact a separate Syria sanctions bill, which passed the House by voice vote in January. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., called on Congress to pass the bill sanctioning Assad’s backers after Trump’s military withdrawal from Syria. But he has yet to put it on the Senate floor for a vote.

The humanitarian aid concerns serve as the prelude to a longer-term debate on the fate of reconstruction funds in Syria. The Syrian advocacy groups also support another bill — the No Assistance for Assad Act — which would codify the Trump administration’s policy denying funds to rebuild the country to Assad-held territory.

The bill’s defenders argue that it would prevent the Assad government from manipulating reconstruction funding in the same way it has siphoned off humanitarian funding. But opponents argue that it could sacrifice what little leverage the United States still has in Syria.