November 30, 2018

IntelBrief: Trying to Feed Civilians While Starving Terrorists of Funds

(U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Andy M. Kin / Released).
  • According to its Office of the Inspector General, a top priority for USAID in 2019 is reforming its projects in Syria.
  • The aid agency is attempting to help care for desperate Syrian civilians while ensuring that none of the resources are rerouted to support terrorist groups.
  • Despite new restrictions, substantial amounts of aid money are still flowing into the coffers of terrorist groups, including Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham.
  • The issue of ‘leakage’ of development funds in warzones has plagued the U.S. for decades, especially in the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.


Like most intrastate conflicts, the Syrian civil war is complex. This includes not only geopolitical complexities, compounded by the involvement of powerful nation states (Russia, the U.S., Iran, Turkey), but also challenges associated with properly monitoring the disbursement of development aid. The provision of food and medical assistance to people in dire need of both is not immune from the difficulties associated with conducting logistics in a war zone. The U.S. has sought to avoid becoming more deeply entangled in the conflict, but remains intimately engaged, mostly in its campaign against the so-called Islamic State. Elements of the U.S. government are also involved with various aid delivery projects in rebel-held areas. The agency in charge of those projects, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), has been providing aid since 2011, with much of it earmarked to support the efforts of neighboring countries like Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon, all dealing with a massive influx of refugees. This aid is part of nearly $6 billion the U.S. has given to fund overall relief efforts, a large amount that, even when combined with all other international efforts, is nowhere near adequate to meet the overwhelming demand for basic necessities.

The aid that is delivered to the civilians hunkered down in rebel-held parts of Idlib Province is the most urgently needed, but also the most problematic to administer. There are hundreds of thousands of civilians in Idlib, the last major rebel stronghold, surrounded by armies, militias and terrorists from competing factions. The Syrian regime, along with its Iranian and Russian supporters, holds some of the area, while Turkish-supported groups hold more. These groups include officially designated terrorist groups like Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which controls as much as 60% of the territory outside of government control near Idlib, while other terrorist groups, including the al-Qaeda-linked Tanzim Hurras al-Din (the Religious Guardians’ Organization) also operate in and around Idlib province. HTS has been heavily supported by Turkey, though some analysts believe that the relationship changed in August when Turkey designated HTS as a terrorist organization.

To reach its ultimate destination in Idlib, development aid must pass through rebel controlled-and-operated checkpoints. The aid is taxed at each step along the value chain, with money skimmed during this process ending up with HTS or whatever group runs that checkpoint. By law, USAID is prohibited from delivering aid if it is reasonable to expect that doing so would provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization. To combat this, USAID has implemented tighter restrictions and vetting procedures on the local groups it contracts with. Some say the restrictions make aid delivery nearly impossible, while USAID finds the restrictions long overdue and essential. USAID projects in Syria are the most problematic and the agency has designed specific vetting requirements for projects there—both large and small. The approval process for USAID-supported projects in Syria is, by design, cumbersome and lengthy. The agency states this on its website in the section devoted to bidding for aid projects: ‘Consistent with the USAID Syria vetting procedures, USAID reserves the right to undertake terrorist vetting of current or proposed recipients, sub-recipients or sub- contractors. USAID may undertake such vetting before or after an award, sub-award or sub-contract is approved. Submission of an application constitutes agreement by the applicant to provide information if requested to enable such vetting in accordance with the USAID Syria vetting procedures.’

A November 14 report by USAID showed that money is still finding its way into the hands of groups like HTS, mostly from the border checkpoints between Turkey and Idlib province. As recent history has proven, it is difficult to avoid inadvertently funding designated terrorist groups when these groups control territory, checkpoints and border crossings. As in all conflicts, but perhaps more so with the incredibly complex Syrian war, delivering aid means making deals with a range of unsavory actors and hoping that the greater good is the lesser of two evils. How to maximize aid delivery while minimizing financial support to groups like HTS through bribes, bid rigging, corruption and theft, is a constant policy conundrum faced by governments and non-government organizations alike. In late November 2018, the Office of the Inspector General for USAID announced that reforming USAID projects in Syria is a top priority for 2019. On balance, the challenges with respect to aid delivery have only begun. If Syria is ever to resemble anything close to a functioning state once again, the international community will have to provide vast amounts of funding for reconstruction, so institutions can be rebuilt, while critical infrastructure is repaired and replaced. Without these steps, IS or another terrorist entity will step in to fill the void, further perpetuating the cycle of violence and misery that has defined Syria for nearly a decade.


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