Syria secretly stole $100 million from UN donations by manipulating currency exchange rates, report says

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (R) accompanied by his wife Asma speaks to members of the press after casting their votes at a polling station in Douma, near the capital Damascus on May 26, 2021, as voting began across Syria for an election guaranteed to return Assad for a fourth term in office. - The 55-year-old president, who has been in power since 2000, is sure to keep his job after the election, every aspect of which is controlled by him and his Baath party. He faces former state minister Abdallah Salloum Abdallah and Mahmoud Merhi, a member of the so-called "tolerated opposition", long described by exiled opposition leaders as an extension of the regime. (Photo by LOUAI BESHARA / AFP) (Photo by LOUAI BESHARA/AFP via Getty Images)
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
  • The UN has long funneled millions of dollars in poverty relief donations to Syria.
  • But the Syrian regime has pocketed $100M by making the UN use its internal exchange rate, an analysis found.
  • Syria is cash-strapped and subject to strict sanctions from the EU, US, and UK.

The Syrian government has diverted $100 million worth of UN aid donations by manipulating the value of its currency, according to a new analysis.

President Bashar al-Assad's oppressive regime has been subject to harsh sanctions for years, meaning the government can't generate revenue through trade with the likes of the US, UK, and EU. Millions of dollars in Syrian government assets have been frozen in banks located in Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East.

As a result, the Syrian central bank has turned to illicit means to generate capital, researchers from the Center for Strategic and International Studies said as part of a study conducted with the Operations & Policy Center and the Center for Operational Analysis and Research.

The UN funnels millions in aid to Syria each year for poverty relief, but according to an analysis of 779 public UN contracts, Syria has since 2019 made the UN use the central bank's official exchange rate of between 2,500 and 1,500 Syrian pounds to one US dollar, CSIS said.

The unofficial - and less lucrative - rate, used by traders and on the black market, is 3,500 Syrian pounds to the dollar.

This means that 50% of foreign aid sent to Syria by the UN in 2020 was lost to the government, the researchers said.

According to the report, the Syrian government has made a total of $100 million from this scheme since 2019.

The bodies targeted by the Syrian regime included the UN's office for the coordination of humanitarian affairs, the World Food Programme, the UN Development Programme, and UNICEF, according to to the Guardian.

The UN did not immediately respond to Insider's request for comment.

"This shows an incredibly systematic way of diverting aid before it even has a chance to be implemented or used on the ground," said Natasha Hall, a senior fellow at CSIS, according to The Guardian.

"If the goal of sanctions overall is to deprive the regime of the resources to commit acts of violence against civilians and the goal of humanitarian aid is to reach people in need then we have this instance … where aid is at complete contradiction to those two stated goals."

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