"Is it logical to provide aid to a regime responsible for destroying cities, bombing hospitals and bakeries and displacing population, so it can fix the dire situation it had created!"
This was what Syria's National Coalition, the principal umbrella group of the Syrian opposition, wanted to know. The coalition was sounding the alarm about a U.N. plan, published Dec. 19, to launch a half-billion-dollar assistance program in Syria, in cooperation with President Bashar al-Assad's regime. The news spread like wildfire among outraged anti-Assad activists, who feared that the funds would be diverted to fund the regime's war effort. Under the Twitter hashtag #UNpaysAssad, people implored the world body to reconsider.
Here's what really happened. The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) worked out how much money U.N. agencies would need to help Syrians for the first half of 2013. The total was just under $520 million, with the U.N. World Food Program asking for the largest share ($139 million). UNHCR (the U.N. refugee agency), the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, and UNICEF followed close behind.
"The Syrian government is trying to get some of that money directly to its agencies," says National Coalition spokesman Khalid Saleh. "They're asking for the [Syrian] deputy minister of foreign affairs to oversee the distribution."
Indeed, UNOCHA's Humanitarian Assistance Response Plan (HARP) includes some pretty reverent language. "All humanitarian assistance is, and will continue to be, delivered with full respect to the sovereignty of the Syrian Arab Republic during the implementation of this Response Plan," it asserts.
But does that mean Assad will get his hands on half a billion dollars? Almost certainly not.
Saleh admits that though the United Nations has been providing aid in Syria for two years, it's unlikely the Syrian government has seen any of that cash. "I don't think there have been any direct funds transfers between the U.N. and the Assad regime," he says. "But there are some programs that operate in Damascus where they would not allow them to operate freely."
It all comes down to the way that aid is distributed in Syria. International bodies rely on local partner agencies to deliver food and supplies to those in need. U.N. agencies pick Syrian NGOs with on-the-ground knowledge to get into the places they can't. The trouble is that many believe -- with some justification -- that there is no such thing as a true nongovernmental organization in Syria.
"[NGOs'] programs are controlled by Assad," explains Saleh. "They can't operate unless they have permission, and [the regime] has its own men within these programs. How can we be sure that the assistance from these programs will get into the hands of Syrians?"
The Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) is the U.N. agencies' primary partner in Syria, and it is the one that most frequently comes in for criticism for alleged links to the government. John Ging, UNOCHA's operations director, has just returned from Syria, where he spent time in both government-controlled areas and rebel-held zones. He said in a Jan. 28 news conference that SARC volunteers are universally respected: "What was reassuring for us to see was how [SARC volunteers were] greeted and regarded in the opposition-controlled areas. This of course is evidence for us that they are doing a job and doing it with integrity."