Since late 2017, there have been “numerous instances” in which US aid was “knowingly diverted” to terror groups in Syria, including Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian brach of al0Qaeda), a Pentagon Lead Inspector General said in a report on November 12.
“Since late 2017, USAID OIG investigations have uncovered numerous instances of possible or confirmed diversions to armed groups in Idlib Governorate in northwestern Syria, including Ha’yat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), a designated Foreign Terrorist Organization.
One investigation found that an NGO’s employees knowingly diverted thousands of USAID funded food kits worth millions of dollars to ineligible beneficiaries (including HTS fighters) and submitted falsified beneficiary lists. The investigation resulted in USAID suspending the program and the NGO terminating the employment of dozens of individuals from March to May 2018,” the report said.
The aforementioned food kits were part of a $30 million relief effort for Syrians displaced from their homes and the relief effort was operated by the US charity Catholic Relief Services, according to Irin News.
It should be noted that while the Pentagon Lead Inspector General report shows the aid delivery to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and other radicals as something “unexpected”, this situation is an open secret for any expert following the conflict in Syria. In fact, multiple US-backed humantiarian programs has been for a long time just a part of the wider effort to support terrorists in the war-torn country.
“USAID OIG also investigated diversions of assistance to HTS in another NGO’s programs, which OIG suspected was perpetrated by NGO staff affiliated with the terrorist group. Although the investigation is ongoing, the implementer voluntarily suspended portions of its programs, adapted its program to the changing risk environment, and terminated some employees. In response to these findings, USAID has suspended certain programmatic activities, added additional language in all new awards requiring prior written approval from USAID before programming in HTS-controlled areas, and is undertaking a systematic review of ongoing programs in the region,” the report added.
The investigation also pointed “risks” associated with the funds ending up in the terrorist group’s hands and allegedly prompted a series of changes to aid provided to the region.
“These risks included systemic coercion by HTS of NGO employees to assist in diversions; imposition of taxes, duties, and fees on USAID implementers and beneficiaries; HTS control of local councils and IDP camp management that assist USAID implementers in identifying eligible beneficiaries; and implementers failing to adequately mitigate the threat to USAID programming from these armed groups,” the report noted.
Formal steps by the USAID to halt at least a few of the existing channels created to support terrorists in Syria are an important signal that may impact the conflict positively. However, according to experts, the USAID “investigation” and the following decision are mostly linked to the changing military and political situation in the country. Over the past few years, Washington has lost most of its influence on terrorist groups in northwestern Syria and is now focusing its efforts in the northeastern part of the country, which is controlled by the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
The middle Euphrates Valley, the US military base of at-Tanf and the nearby refugee camp are now the only areas where the US-led coalition has a direct contact with various “democratic activists”, including ISIS. So, most of the existing “aid programms” are not needed now.