Syrian aid groups suspend ties with UN

Vehicles of the International Committee of the Red Cross the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and the United Nations wait on a street after an aid convoy entered the rebel-held Syrian town of Daraya, southwest of the capital Damascus, on June 1, 2016 (AFP Photo/Fadi Dirani) (AFP/File)

United Nations (United States) (AFP) - More than 70 Syrian aid groups are suspending cooperation with the United Nations, accusing UN humanitarian agencies and their partners of being manipulated by the regime, according to a letter released Thursday.

In the letter to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the 73 signatories demanded an investigation of the UN agencies' work in Syria and called for a monitoring body to be set up to oversee the relief effort.

"It has become clear to many organizations that the Syrian government in Damascus has a significant and substantial influence on the performance of UN agencies based in Damascus as well as their partners," including the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, said the letter.

Among the signatories were the Syrian American Medical Society and the Syrian Civil Defense, known as the White Helmets, who are active in opposition-held areas.

The groups announced they were pulling out of a UN information-sharing program for aid deliveries and would propose a new mechanism "where there is no political influence in any aspect of it."

"The Syrian government has interfered with the delivery of humanitarian assistance in multiple instances," the aid groups wrote.

They took aim at the failure of the United Nations to deliver aid to nearly 600,000 people living in besieged areas, most of which are surrounded by President Bashar al-Assad's forces.

British newspaper The Guardian last month reported that UN aid contracts worth tens of millions of dollars have gone to people closely associated with Assad despite US and European Union sanctions.

The newspaper's analysis of hundreds of UN contracts granted since the Syrian conflict began in 2011 showed many awarded to companies run by or linked to regime players who are under US and EU sanctions.

But the United Nations defended its actions, saying it had to work with the Syrian government to ensure aid deliveries.

The Guardian found that two UN agencies had partnered with the Syria Trust charity, an organization started and chaired by Assad's wife Asma, spending a total of $8.5 million.

It also said the UN had given money to the state-owned fuel supplier, which is under EU sanctions, and to Syria's national blood bank, which is controlled by Assad's defense ministry.

Money also went to the Al-Bustan Association, owned and run by Assad's billionaire cousin Rami Makhlouf, who is Syria's most notorious and powerful tycoon.

The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization had given $13.3 million to the Syrian agriculture ministry, which is on the EU sanctions list, the Guardian said.

More than 290,000 people have been killed in the war, now in its sixth year, and international efforts to end the conflict have faltered.