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West must be in 'driver's seat' for Syria reconstruction - HRW

GENEVA (Reuters) - Western donors must ensure that humanitarian aid and any future reconstruction assistance in Syria do not fuel repression or benefit “cronies” of President Bashar al-Assad, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Friday.

The Syrian government has kept tight controls on the aid flow into the country throughout its eight-year civil war, often depriving civilians in opposition areas of supplies while favouring loyalists, according to New York-based HRW.

Syrian authorities have denied using starvation tactics as a weapon of war or diverting aid to government-held areas.

But Human Rights Watch, in a report based on interviews with aid workers and experts, said that U.N. and other aid agencies had been forced into complicity in selective distributions in order to access some areas.

Donors must be in the “driver’s seat” now that Assad has all but won the war and millions of Syrian refugees consider returning to their homeland where one-third of the infrastructure has been destroyed, the report said.

The Syrian government has proven to be “a master of manipulation when it comes to aid”, Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, told Reuters.

“This is an important moment...because it is a moment when the Syria government is also begging the West for billions (of dollars) of new funds for reconstruction aid. So the problems that we have seen are going to recur in spades if there is not a serious effort to address them.”

The United States and European Union say they cannot provide aid for reconstruction in Syria without a political transition and end to a war that has killed hundreds of thousands.

The economies of Syria’s main allies Russia and Iran are hurting, Roth said. “So I don’t see other big sources of funds. They are going to be Western funds which gives the Western donors some leverage which we hope that they will exercise.”

“Anybody proposing to provide humanitarian or reconstruction assistance in Syria has the responsibility to do basic due diligence to ensure that their funds are going to those in greatest need, that they are not underwriting ongoing repression, that they are not padding the bank accounts of government officials and cronies,” he said.

Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Mark Heinrich