UN paid millions to Assad allies on sanctions list
UN staff ran up a $9.5 million bill at the Four Seasons hotel in Damascus, co-owned by Syria's tourism ministry, according to the UN annual report on procurement for 2016.
The UN also awarded $751,129 to the Syria Trust for Development, a charity headed by Assad's wife, Asma, while Syrian and international aid agencies have complained aid is disproportionately distributed to regime-held areas.
Lucrative telecommunications and security contracts were awarded to regime insiders including Rami Makhlouf, Assad's cousin.
Syriatel, which belongs to Makhlouf, was paid $164,300 by three different UN bodies including the refugee agency UNHCR and the children's relief organisation UNICEF.
"Any money going to Assad and his allies shows that the UN is not impartial but is in fact helping the largest player in the conflict," said Kathleen Fallon, a spokeswoman for The Syria Campaign, an independent advocacy group.
"The regime has been responsible for the majority of the deaths, and they are being rewarded. It sends the wrong message."
UN officials say the allocation of funds point to the difficulty of operating outside the auspices of the state in countries such as Syria, and the premium placed on protecting staff.
"We source locally and there are many places where the local economy is either state-owned or we have very limited options," said Stephane Dujarric, the UN's chief spokesman.
Of UN spending at the Four Seasons, co-owned by Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, he said: "That's one place in Damascus that has been cleared for security."
Yet the payments to Assad allies will further fuel criticism that the world body has failed badly over Syria, where more than six years of civil war have left at least 400,000 people dead.
The UN spent a total of $140 million on goods and services in Syria last year, according to the report.
Meanwhile, UN efforts to bring food and medical relief to Syria have been physically targeted by the Assad regime.
Last September, Syrian planes bombed an aid convoy carrying medicine and supplies to the city of Aleppo, then under siege by Assad's army and since captured from the rebels.
Regime-held areas received 88 percent of food aid distributed from Damascus in April 2016, according to a World Food Programme report. In September, 73 NGOs wrote to the UN condemning the manipulation of relief efforts.