UN humanitarian operations in Syria in 2021-2022, a damning new report

The study was funded by Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.


HRWF (28.05.2024) – The table of 100 Syria-based suppliers ranked by contract amount identifies 19 very high risk and 11 high risk organizations (30% of the total amount).

The highest contract ($33,821,848 received from the World Food Program) is ranked Nr 1 as “Very High Risk” and concerns the Syrian Olive Oil Company.

The indicator explains that “The company, or a person with significant control or ownership over the company, is a front for an individual or an entity involved in conflict-related human rights abuses.The company, or a person with significant control or ownership over the company, has provided logistical or other types of support to the Syrian armed forces/Syrian government since 2011.”

The justification of the assessment is as follows:

“The company is owned by Nizar Al-Asaad (40%), Ghassan Adib Mhanna (10%), Hassan Sharif (10%) and members of the Betinjaneh regime (40%).

At the time of procurements, Al-Asaad was sanctioned by the EU (2011) for supporting the regime.

Mhanna is the maternal uncle of Bashar al-Assad’s cousin and most notable business front until recently, Rami Makhlouf.

Hassan Sharif is the brother of Ammar Sharif, who was subjected to sanctions by the EU (2016) and the UK (2016).

Hassan Sharif is reportedly a front for Rami Makhlouf who has, in turn, supported the regime through his business interests and charities.

The Betinjaneh Brothers Company (ranked as high risk). It is owned by the children of Habib Betinjaneh: Antoun, Eyad and Rita.

Antoun is vice chairman of the Foreign Trade Committee and Supervisor of the Grain Committee in the Damascus and Rural Chamber of Industry and an active member of the  accompanied Assad during his visits to Iran and UAE. He is reported to have visited Iran more than once with a technical group from the Syrian Olive Oil Company. He is influential in strengthening Syrian-Iranian businesses and played a role in opening credit lines between the two in 2011, delisted March 2023) in the Syrian Olive Oil Company.”

Executive summary of the study (Excerpt)

Observatory of Political and Economic Networks (22.05.2024) – In 2022, the Observatory of Political and Economic Networks (OPEN) partnered with the Syrian Legal Development Program (SLDP) in a project investigating the top 100 private Syrian suppliers to the United Nations (UN) between 2019 and 2020. Although aid diversion has been observed, albeit to a lesser extent, in other control areas in Syria, the report focused on regime-held areas due to data availability. Following a methodology developed by SLDP and Human Rights Watch (HRW), the report measured the human rights-related risk of procurement suppliers. This report has three objectives. First, to measure the risks of the top 100 private suppliers over 2021–2022 using the previous report’s methodology to examine the change over time. Second, to investigate the UN’s procurements from state institutions over 2015–2022. Third, to examine the transparency of UN operations.

The data shows a reduction in procurements from Syria; although this has a negative impact on the local economy in ordinary circumstances, it is welcome in light of the prevalent diversion of aid. However, while in-country procurements fell, they became relatively more risky; human rights-related High Risk and Very High Risk suppliers constituted 52% during 2021–2022, relative to 47% in the two years prior. Rising procurement from risky suppliers is also reflected by the increase in the share of procurements from suppliers owned by sanctioned individuals: from 23% in 2019–2020, to 31% in 2021–2022. Most of these sanctioned suppliers are Assad regime cronies, such as Samir Hassan, Samer Foz, and Bilal al-Naal.

In 2022, procurements from public and semi-public organisations such as the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and Mahrokat (for oil derivatives) exceeded $3 million. Procurements from Mahrokat surged in 2022 and are likely to increase further as the regime began imposing prices well above cost following the February 2023 earthquake, with no known pushback from donor states and the UN.

Of particular concern is the UN’s lack of transparency. In 2022, Syria had the highest share of procurements from suppliers hidden for ‘security’ or ‘privacy’ reasons compared to five other countries with the largest UN-led humanitarian responses. The data shows that agencies procuring from hidden suppliers tend to be accused of more violations; the WHO, leading the way in such procurements, was accused by the Associated Press of handing over ‘golden coins and cars’ to regime officials. A new dataset on the UN’s partnerships with local NGOs, leaked to the authors, highlights the detailed funding for the Syria Trust for Development being spearheaded by Asma al-Assad, NGOs actively calling for Assad’s recent re-election, and a partnership with the son of a former Minister of Defence.