Um Ahmed left everything when she and her four children fled their home south of Damascus at the beginning of a decade-long civil war – toys scattered around all corners of the house, the certificates she earned when she qualified as a pharmacist.
After moving repeatedly, they now live in the Rukn al-Din neighbourhood of the capital in a gloomy rental flat. It is a far cry from their previous home, which was filled with light from dawn until dusk.
“My house was furnished, the pharmacy was full of medicine, and now I have nothing,” lamented Um Ahmed, who asked to be referred to by her nickname due to a fear of reprisals from the government. “It has all become a dream.”
The ruins of her 100sq metre house in Daraya, a former base for the opposition Free Syrian Army, cost 25,000 Syrian pounds ($20) to clear of debris. She was out of money before she could even begin to think of rebuilding.
An estimated 6.2 million people have been internally displaced by Syria’s long-running civil war, which has plunged the country into a deep economic and humanitarian crisis. A further 5.6 million have fled and are registered as refugees. In 2018, the United Nations estimated the cost of destruction from the war at some $388bn, nearly 20 times more than Syria’s entire economy was worth last year.
The west has balked at paying for Bashar al-Assad to rebuild Syria. The EU and the US have said they will not support the reconstruction of the country until there is a political transition.
The election is also supposed to suggest the country is moving forward, despite the fact that war is ongoing and the economy has collapsed: the government cannot afford to subsidise enough bread for its citizens, let alone rebuild its destroyed cities.
With international funds not forthcoming, the Syrian regime has levied its own tax to finance reconstruction. In 2012, it formed a committee to help rebuild the country under the control of the then deputy prime minister and minister of local administration, Omar Ghalawanji, who was put on the EU’s sanctions list the same year.
It was while watching state television in May 2014 that Um Ahmed learned about the Syrian Reconstruction Committee and its promise to help people rebuild their shattered homes. She submitted a claim.
The committee has raised an estimated 386bn Syrian pounds ($307m), according to an analysis by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), its Syrian partner SIRAJ, and Finance Uncovered. But there is little evidence that the money has been spent helping civilians such as Um Ahmed who, like thousands of others, has heard nothing since applying for compensation.
Available records show that the regime’s reconstruction committee has mostly allocated funds levied from the tax to government ministries and public institutions, making it impossible to track what is spent. Some of the funds that OCCRP did manage to trace, though a small proportion of the whole, went to refurbish military facilities and housing for government forces. Money spent on civilians has often gone to those in pro-government areas.
These findings are consistent with research from the Carnegie Middle East Center, which found Assad’s regime has used “selective reconstruction” to shore up its political and economic power in some areas, while ignoring poorer social classes that the regime views as threatening.
In July 2017, the reconstruction committee granted 175m Syrian pounds for maintenance work in Mazzeh 86, a Damascus neighbourhood and a backbone of support for the regime. Meanwhile almost nothing has been rebuilt where Um Ahmed lived in nearby Daraya, a former base for the opposition Free Syrian Army, even though it was heavily damaged in the war.
Mazhar Sharbaji, a governance officer from the Local Administration Councils Unit, an opposition group that monitors reconstruction efforts, said the committee “allows for the disbursement of money taken from reconstruction funds, explicitly to the military, police and security services [it] has clearly given money to military security, internal and political security sectors at the expense of civilian victims”.
The reconstruction committee did not respond to several requests for comment. A media officer at the ministry of finance directed OCCRP to the ministry of information to obtain permission to submit questions to the committee. The approval is yet to be granted.
In 2013, the tax was set as a 5% levy on direct taxes, such as on the sale of real estate and renewal of car licences, as well as indirect taxes such as VAT and fees for legal cases (income taxes were exempt).
The cash-strapped government doubled it to 10% in 2017 when Zubair Darwish, then director general of Syria’s general commission for taxes and fees, told Syrian state newspaper Tishreen the money would be spent on “supporting restoration and rebuilding what was destroyed, as well as supporting the resettlement of displaced families”.
The then minister of finance, Mamoun Hamdan, explained the government needed to collect more funds to rebuild infrastructure and private properties destroyed in the war.
As the public was led to think the taxes were going to rebuild their homes, a system was set up to allow citizens to apply for compensation to a subcommittee in each Assad-controlled governorate who would in turn send claims to the central reconstruction committee for approval.
But a review of documents by OCCRP, SIRAJ, and Finance Uncovered suggests this has not happened. Data from open sources, parliamentary debates and state media indicates Syria’s government allocated 30bn Syrian pounds to the reconstruction committee in 2013, then 50bn Syrian pounds (worth $40m at today’s exchange rates) every year since – a total of 380bn Syrian pounds, or over $1.4bn. Contributions from the reconstruction levy have increased over the years from the equivalent of $56m in 2016 to $132.4m in 2020.
Spending disclosures, meanwhile, show commitments totalling just 263bn Syrian pounds, leaving a potential underspend of 117bn Syrian pounds (approximately $229m, though the value of the pound has fluctuated wildly during this period). Where the money lies remains a mystery.
The documents suggest less than 10% – 24.2bn Syrian pounds – of the funds allocated to the committee since 2014 has been spent on rebuilding citizens’ homes.
By contrast, 90.3% of the budget has gone to government ministries and public institutions, where it has been impossible to ascertain how the great majority of it has been spent. A small fraction, 1.32bn Syrian pounds, could be pinpointed as having been spent on Syria’s military and security forces.
“Society’s lack of oversight on the work of government entities allows the regime total freedom to make use of public resources, even humanitarian assistance,” said Haid Haid, a senior consulting research fellow at Chatham House in London.
“Therefore, the regime can use this money to maintain itself and ensure its continuity either by using it for police and security matters, or to finance itself.”
The Syrian architect Mazhar Sharbaji, who has researched how war-torn countries such as Lebanon, Germany, Japan and South Korea managed to rise from the ashes of war, said the committee “has clearly given money to military security, internal and political security sectors at the expense of civilian victims”.
It is a contention that is difficult to prove, given the lack of transparency. But Sharbaji used the example of Daraya, his hometown. About 70% of the city is partially demolished, and around half is wrecked beyond repair, he said, with electricity almost non-existent and infrastructure and sewage systems completely destroyed. According to Sharbaji, no housing or infrastructure has been built over the past three years.
Analysis of published spending decisions, meanwhile, revealed the reconstruction committee in 2016 granted 50m Syrian pounds to 167 members of the army and the police, 350m Syrian pounds for the restoration and modernisation of military hospitals in the coastal towns of Latakia and Tartus, in traditionally pro-regime areas, and approved paying for the reconstruction of homes belonging to wounded auxiliary forces who fought with the Syrian army.
While those funds are a small part of overall spending, Osama Kadi, head of the Syrian economic taskforce, which monitors reconstruction efforts, suggests the reconstruction tax is being used to bail out governmental finances.
“Lack of transparency and widespread corruption within successive Syrian governments for five decades makes it difficult to determine the fate of the huge monies that the regime has obtained from Syrians in the name of reconstruction,” he said.
“Nearly 10 million Syrians still live outside their homes, all the infrastructure continues to suffer from structural problems, as electricity and water are constantly cut, in addition to other services, and basic goods are not well available.”
Former rebel-held cities where the Syrian regime has regained control, such as Old Homs and the surrounding countryside, Rif-Dimashq, Aleppo, Dara’a, Deir Al-Zour, and many others, where the government has been collecting taxes, meanwhile remain in rubble.
“Syrian citizens and businesses are the victims of a systematic government effort to collect funds through a reconstruction tax, while completely failing to deliver,” said economic journalist Sameer Tawil.
Mohammad Bassiki reports for SIRAJ and Nick Mathiason for Finance Uncovered. Ali Ibrahim (SIRAJ) contributed reporting.
This story was completed with support from Journalismfund.eu’s Money Trail Project.
The UN may have put hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees at risk of persecution or involuntary repatriation back to Myanmar after improperly collecting and sharing refugees’ personal information with Bangladesh, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), which is urging an investigation.
But the refugees were largely uninformed that their personal data, which included photographs, fingerprints and biographical information, would be passed by the Bangladeshi government on to authorities in Myanmar with a view to possible repatriation, said Lama Fakih, crisis and conflict director at Human Rights Watch.
“The UN refugee agency’s data collection practices with Rohingya in Bangladesh were contrary to the agency’s own policies and exposed refugees to further risk,” said Fakih.
“[A] refugee has the right to control their data, who has access to it, and for what purposes, and UNHCR and other agencies should be accountable to those whose data they hold.”
The UN denied any wrongdoing or policy violations, stating that it had explained all purposes of the data-gathering exercise and obtained consent, according to UNHCR spokesperson Andrej Mahecic.
Each Rohingya refugee family was “asked to consent to their data being shared with partners on the ground for the purpose of receiving assistance … [and] separately and expressly asked whether they gave their consent to have their data shared with the government of Myanmar by the government of Bangladesh” to establish right of return, said Mahecic.
But 24 Rohingya refugees interviewed by HRW between September 2020 and March 2021 about their experience registering with UNHCR tell a different story. Of the 24 refugees, 23 said they were never informed the data would be used for anything beyond establishing aid access.
They were given a receipt, in English, with a box ticked stating they had agreed to the data being shared with Myanmar, but only three of the 24 refugees could read English.
One of the three interviewees who could read English said he only realised what had happened after his interview.
“After they took my data, they printed out a receipt. I walked back to my tent, and then I looked at the paper, and noticed that on the top there was a tick box that the person at the centre had marked as ‘yes’ without ever asking me, that my data would be shared with Myanmar,” he said.
“I was so angry when I saw that, but I had already given my data, and I needed services, so I didn’t know what I could do about it.”
Although the sample size of HRW’s research is small, it is likely that their findings are echoed throughout the Rohingya refugee population, said senior HRW researcher Belkis Wille.
“Bangladesh shared the names and details of 830,000 Rohingya with Myanmar, which broadly speaking is the entire Rohingya refugee population that came to Bangladesh. So that would suggest that nobody had any objection to having their data shared with Myanmar, at least in terms of the checkbox on the form,” said Wille.
“It is hard to imagine that not a single person had a concern and said no [to giving consent]. And that is one of the key reasons why we think what we saw in our individual interviews may be what you would see across the broader Rohingya population, which is that they weren’t being asked this question or, if they were, it wasn’t in a way that they understood or in a way that they felt comfortable saying no to.”
Of the 830,000 Rohingya whose data Bangladesh submitted to Myanmar, about 42,000 have been given right to return to their home country. They include 21 of the refugees interviewed by HRW, who said they only knew their data had been shared when they were informed they could return to Myanmar. All 21 have since gone into hiding out of fear of forced repatriation, HRW said.
UNHCR said that “any return to Myanmar must be based on the individual and voluntary choice of refugees” and that the UN would assist returns when conditions are conducive to safe and sustainable return, “which is not currently the case”.
China has joined Russia as an explicit danger to Western allies after a Nato summit in Brussels on Monday (14 June).
“China’s stated ambitions and assertive behaviour present systemic challenges to the rules-based international order and to areas relevant to alliance security,” the 30 Nato leaders said in a joint communiqué.
“China is rapidly expanding its nuclear arsenal with more warheads and a larger number of sophisticated delivery systems,” the statement added.
“It is also cooperating militarily with Russia, including through participation in Russian exercises in the Euro-Atlantic area,” it said.
Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg highlighted the novelty of the text in his post-summit press conference.
“The first time [ever] we mentioned China in a communiqué and a document in a decision from Nato leaders was 18 months ago,” he noted, when Nato spoke of China-linked “opportunities and challenges” back in 2019.
“China’s not an adversary,” Stoltenberg noted.
But he also expanded on the list of its threatening activities.
“They [the Chinese] already have the … second biggest defence budget, and already the biggest navy, and they are investing heavily in new modern capabilities, including by investing in new disruptive technologies such as autonomous systems, facial recognition and artificial intelligence, and putting them into different weapon systems,” he said.
“They are really in the process of changing the nature of warfare,” Stoltenberg said.
He rejected the idea that Nato, whose core task was to defend the North-Atlantic region, was overstepping its treaty boundaries.
“To respond to the challenges we see that China poses to our security, is not about moving Nato to Asia … because we see that China is coming closer to us,” he said.
“We see China coming closer to us in cyber, controlling infrastructure in Africa and the Arctic, training together with Russia in North Atlantic waters,” he added.
The Nato pivot to China did not mean it had abandoned concern on Russia, whose malign activities, from waging war in Ukraine to blowing up warehouses in the Czech Republic, still dominated the communiqué, however.
“Until Russia demonstrates compliance with international law and its international obligations and responsibilities, there can be no return to ‘business as usual’,” the statement said.
China was named 10 times and Russia 62 times.
Meanwhile, French president Emmanuel Macron and German chancellor Angela Merkel also voiced a more China-friendly tone.
“Nato is a military organisation, the issue of our relationship with China isn’t just a military issue. It is economic. It is strategic. It is about values. It is technological,” Macron told press after the summit.
China was a “major power with which we are working on global issues to move forward together” as well as a “competitor”, he noted.
“It’s very important that we don’t … bias our relationship with China,” he said.
“China is not in the North Atlantic,” Macron added, going against Stoltenberg’s line.
“Russia, above all, is a major challenge,” Merkel also said, while noting the Nato communiqué reflected the fact the US was a Pacific-Ocean as well as an Atlantic power.
“If you look at the cyber threats, the hybrid threats, if you look at the cooperation between Russia and China, then you cannot simply negate China … [but] I do not think that we should overestimate the importance of this [Chinese threat],” she added.
For its part, China had not yet responded as of Tuesday morning.
The Nato summit came ahead of US president Joe Biden’s meeting with top EU officials in Brussels on Tuesday and with Russian president Vladimir Putin in Geneva on Wednesday.
It signalled a return to normal after four years in which former US president Donald Trump had questioned the value of Nato and insulted Macron, Merkel, and others, while cozying up to Putin.
Back to normal
Nato’s mutual defence pact was “rock solid” and a “sacred obligation” for the US, Biden said.
“I want all Europe to know that … Nato is critically important to us,” he added.
“With Joe Biden … there is a clear understanding of the necessity of Nato,” Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte said.
“I was able to work with Trump. Of course, it was a bit more awkward … but with Joe Biden, it’s more natural again,” he added.
Meanwhile, Biden gave away little on what he might say to Putin.
But he sounded more dovish than hawkish by excluding the idea of a Nato membership action plan for Ukraine, on grounds “they [Ukraine] still have to clean up corruption”.
He also said Putin was a “bright” and “tough” adversary.
“I will make clear to president Putin that there are areas where we can cooperate, if he chooses,” Biden said.
The West needed a “robust dialogue” with Russia to “build a security framework for the European continent”, Macron also said.
The Tigray region in Ethiopia faces the grim prospect of a man-made famine. What can be done to end this slide into tribal conflict?
Alexander Mercouris, editor-in-chief at The Duran, and writer on international affairs with a special interest in Russia and law, and Dr. Kenneth Surin, Professor Emeritus of literature and professor of religion and critical theory at Duke University, join us in a conversation about the main takeaways from the G7 summit over the weekend, the proposal of a global minimum global tax rate of 15%, what impact this could have on multinational corporations, and whether we should be hopeful or skeptical about this considering how low the bar has been set for these corporations. We also talk about how many of the conversations were framed within the context of a confrontation with China, by proposing a plan to counter the Belt and Road initiative, and focusing on the issues in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.
Teodrose Fikremariam, cofounder of Ghion Journal, tells us about the ongoing conflict in the Tigray region in Ethiopia, including the involvement of Eritrean troops in the conflict and why they are there, claims that there is a risk of a man-made famine in Tigray and how there have been episodes of collective punishment. We also talk about how this conflict has brought a new tribalism into the forefront, how the portrayal of the Tigray authorities as victims in Western media is not completely accurate, taking into consideration that they began hostilities, and how international multilateral and regional organizations do not have the capacity or understanding of the situation to work as honest brokers in the conflict.
John Feffer, Director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies, joins us to talk about the NATO summit taking place in Brussels this week, how the organization is yet again trying to redefine its mission and find its purpose, and whether they will be able maintain their membership as the justification for its existence seems to change every year. We also talk about the continued withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and the establishment of permanent airbases in the region.