The Syrian regime is co-opting aid and reconstruction assistance, Human Rights Watch said Friday, warning humanitarian players that they risked complicity in human rights abuses.
Eight years after the start of the civil war, President Bashar al-Assad's forces control around 60 percent of Syria and are looking to rebuild the battered country.
The New York-based watchdog urged donors, investors and agencies partnering with the Damascus government to ensure their programmes would not entrench repressive policies and contribute to serious human rights violations.
"The Syrian government has manipulated the massive amounts of humanitarian aid that have been delivered to the country, and it is frankly the most sophisticated, brazen operation that we have ever seen," HRW chief Kenneth Roth told AFP in an interview.
"Aid gets diverted to loyalists of the government, away from the people who are most in need, who are often the people who have lived in opposition-held areas," he said.
"A lot of it ends up in the pockets of government officials and cronies, and some of it even ends up funding the very security forces who are responsible for the humanitarian crisis, the ones who are detaining, torturing and killing," he added.
HRW's 94-page report, entitled "Rigging the System" details how humanitarian organisations often comply with Damascus's conditions for fear of losing access or being shut down.
It also found that aid programmes that include a human rights chapter are almost systematically blocked by the authorities.
- 'All complicit' -
Aid and reconstruction players in Syria are likely to have to partner with top regime figures and allies who dominate the economy and thus risk working with or funding rights abusers, the watchdog said.
The group admitted that aid in government-controlled areas of Syria was needed and that donors and agencies there had little room for manoeuvre.
"The Syrian government's aid framework undermines human rights, and donors need to ensure they are not complicit in the government's human rights violations," HRW's acting Middle East director Lama Fakih said in a statement.
Roth said humanitarian agencies were often cornered into supporting Damascus's objectives.
At a certain point, he said, the humanitarians, donors and investors working with the regime "are all complicit in this."
While the problem has been going on for a long time, Roth stressed the need to quickly break the cycle before reconstruction funds really start flooding in.
"A lot of money is at stake, many new opportunities for graft and for diversion of funds," he said.
HRW did not call on UN agencies and donors to stop providing aid to Syria, but gave recommendations to minimise the chances they would end up complicit in violations.
In particular, Roth said, HRW would like to see donors and humanitarian agencies "band together" and create a common clearinghouse mechanism for setting and upholding standards and distributing aid.
"If they were to operate in a more unified way, not let Damascus divide and conquer, this would be a way to change things," he said.
If humanitarian actors stand together, he said, they will have more leverage to ensure aid is "distributed not according to partisan preferences, but according to need."
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