UNITED NATIONS — More than 70 humanitarian organizations are accusing the United Nations of allowing the Syrian government to manipulate relief efforts and deprive thousands in besieged areas of help.

The aid groups working in Syria and neighboring Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey announced in a letter to the U.N. humanitarian office in Turkey, obtained Thursday by The Associated Press, that they are suspending participation in an information-sharing program aimed at improving aid delivery.

This is “a first step in response to the political influence of the Syrian government and the inaction of U.N. agencies and other humanitarian actors based in Damascus,” the letter said.

The 73 groups, which say they provide humanitarian assistance to over seven million Syrians including over six million in the country, also called for an investigation into criticism in the media of the U.N. performance in Damascus.

Britain’s Guardian newspaper reported last week that the U.N. has awarded contracts worth tens of millions of dollars to people closely associated with President Bashar Assad including groups set up by his wife, Asma, and cousin, Rami Makhlouf, who is one of Syria’s most prominent and wealthy businessmen.

“The Syrian government has interfered with the delivery of humanitarian assistance in multiple instances, including the blocking of aid to besieged areas,” the aid groups said. “This deliberate manipulation by the Syrian government and the complacency of the U.N. have played hand-in-hand. The people of Syria have suffered even more as a result.”

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric stressed that the United Nations works in partnership with its 193 member states and continues to deliver aid to millions of Syrians on all sides of the conflict.

The Syrian government, like a number of other countries, insists that the U.N. work with a list of authorized partners and it chooses from the list for supplies such as cellphone service and fuel, he said. In areas not under government control, it works with local partners that may not be on the government list, he said.

“We cannot shoot our way through roadblocks,” Dujarric said. “The U.N.’s humanitarian arm along with its partners is navigating an extremely, extremely challenging environment. The goal is and will remain to deliver as much humanitarian aid as possible.”

He praised the “tremendous work” by the aid groups “who are often the first responders on the front lines” and said “we’re going to continue to engage with them.” He also stressed that the U.N. has “never been shy in raising our voices” when issues arise including the governmental removal of surgical items from aid convoys and blocking permission to deliver aid.


Associated Press Writer Sarah El Deeb contributed to this report from Beirut