A large international relief organisation distributed food aid to Syrian militants in a rebel-held area in breach of US anti-terrorism laws, American government investigators have found, revealing the first reported case of its kind in Syria.
The aid diversion case, in northwestern Idlib, further complicates already difficult relief operations in a region where almost half of the three million people have been displaced once, and where the UN expects as many as 700,000 more to flee their homes if the Syrian government pushes forward with a looming offensive.
Funding for war-affected civilians worth about $30 million was suspended during the investigation by the US Agency for International Development, USAID.
The USAID inspector general’s office (OIG) declined to offer IRIN further details, including the name of the NGO involved. However, the total amount of the grant, $44.6 million, is among the largest USAID projects of its kind, so the candidates are few.
IRIN contacted several NGOs that receive large US grants for aid work in rebel-controlled Syria. US charity Catholic Relief Services wouldn’t directly confirm it was the NGO involved but left little doubt, saying it had “closed” its operations in northwest Syria following reports of aid diversion, and had dismissed staff as it works to “further enhance” anti-fraud measures. CRS has received $147 million from USAID for projects in Syria over the last three financial years, according to the USAID website.
USAID’s inspector general, reporting to Congress, first in March and with more details released in July, said that staff of an unnamed non-profit added “fighters” of armed group Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham to lists of civilians eligible for food packages and then covered up the records. The US government regards HTS as a successor to the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front.
Referring to HTS as a “designated terrorist organisation”, the July report said: “The NGO’s employees allowed HTS fighters to be included among program beneficiaries and submitted falsified beneficiary lists to USAID to conceal the fighters’ participation in the food assistance program.”
"It’s not just irresponsible NGOs. It’s irresponsible donors too, bowing to domestic political pressure, delivering aid in a way that they know is likely to lead to diversion".
The staff were “under duress” from the militant group, according to the investigation, which said that between March and May the NGO dismissed 27 personnel involved. In such cases, NGOs can also be fined, have to return funding to donors, and show they will strengthen controls. In worst-case scenarios, they can be disbarred.
CRS said it could not confirm all of the OIG findings, specifically adding that there was no “conclusive evidence” about where the diverted food ended up.
Analysts say it’s impossible to avoid some aid ending up in the wrong hands, and an NGO official familiar with the issues said aid diversion demanded a collective response: “the risks are so high... we should all be speaking a lot more about these risks together as a community... especially as we are all preparing for the next stage of the conflict [in Idlib].”
Experts also pointed out that donors have to shoulder their share of the blame when things go wrong. Ashley Jackson, an analyst of humanitarian action and counter-terrorism, wrote via email: ”it’s not just irresponsible NGOs. It’s irresponsible donors too, bowing to domestic political pressure, delivering aid in a way that they know is likely to lead to diversion”.
The case highlights the difficulties facing relief agencies in Syria’s last rebel holdout province, Idlib, which receives aid supplies delivered largely from neighbouring Turkey.
Access to healthcare in Idlib is already limited, living conditions for many are substandard, and Panos Moumtzis, the UN's regional humanitarian coordinator for the Syria crisis, has said that an offensive in densely populated areas will "likely severely impact humanitarian partners’ ability to deliver life-saving assistance."
As IRIN reported a year ago, the power and influence of HTS continues to present legal and political obstacles to any international aid effort. And the HTS case is not the only one: the OIG reports it has three open cases of armed groups diverting aid in Syria, as of 1 July. No further details were available.
Counter-terrorism laws can make it hard for NGOs to work in places with active militant groups, like Somalia, Syria, and Afghanistan. Whether through theft, deception, or "taxation", NGOs risk accusations of providing "material support" to sanctioned entities, even unwittingly, and can face severe fines.
Earlier this year, the NGO Norwegian People's Aid (NPA) agreed to pay USAID more than $2 million to settle a case regarding a technical breach of disclosure rules in its involvement in Iran and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
"NGOs are facing impossible demands in impossible situations, but they bear responsibility for often failing to take a coherent principled stand as a community against those impossible demands."
During the 2011 famine in Somalia, fear of counter-terror restrictions threatened to hold up urgent relief. US authorities reassured NGOs wary of breaking the law with specific rules on acceptable action regarding the sanctioned al-Shabaab group. As Jackson put it: “humanitarians have been consistently subjected to this combination of pressures, from Afghanistan to Yemen, over the past 17 years.”
However, the volume of cases and level of scrutiny in Syria is high. “I think Syria is exceptional in the massive amount of money; pressure to spend it fast, channel it to conflict areas where listed groups are operating and show outputs; and (often) a lack of sufficient oversight,” explained Jackson. “This dynamic, however, is not new,” she added.
There has been a long-running series of investigations into aid diversion in Syria, and USAID with other donors have formed a working group with 18 members to share information.
For Jackson, the buck stops with the aid organisations as well as the donors. “Most NGOs will not refuse funding. And yes, NGOs are facing impossible demands in impossible situations,” she said. “But they bear responsibility for often failing to take a coherent principled stand as a community against those impossible demands. The courage to say no is often lacking.”