Syria's Assad regime has developed a complex scheme to skim tens of millions dollars from the UN as it delivers aid to the war-torn country.
"Western governments, despite sanctioning Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, have become one of the regime’s largest sources of hard currency," researchers at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) said in a report published Wednesday.
Assad's scheme involves using Syria's Central Bank, which is officially under US sanctions, to force UN agencies to use an unfavorable exchange rate that allowed Damascus to divert 51 cents for every dollar spent in 2020, the CSIS report said.
UN agencies spent about $113 million in aid procurement in 2020, which allowed some $60 million to be diverted to the regime's coffers.
Researchers went over purchases made in 2019 and 2020 and identified contracts that were likely paid in Syrian pounds based on the location of contractors. The total sum of diverted funds jumps to $100 million when data from both years is combined, but researchers noted the estimate is likely an undercount because it only includes official UN operations, not those of international NGOs.
Other factors that could have led to a more conservative total include an inability to identify all UN contractors, and the fact that the study does not include payments made in Syrian pounds to pay salaries and activities other than procurement.
"Donor governments profess to have a strategy focused on helping the Syrian people in the face of an oppressive government," the researchers said. "But as they seek to help those suffering under Syrian government rule, they are simultaneously helping secure the government that is causing the suffering."/aa