As the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad accelerates its ferocious military campaign against its own people, the United Nations Development Program, the U.N.'s flagship anti-poverty agency, is still intimately linked to institutions that keep the Assad family’s grip on power -- and that conduct surveillance and may be conducting cyber-warfare against those protesting the brutal regime.
One of the UNDP's partners in its elaborate development schemes for the battered nation -- now suspended due to Assad’s onslaught -- is the Syrian Computer Society (SCS), an organization created by Assad’s older brother and run by Assad himself until he assumed the presidency in 2000. In a 2007 U.N. report, the society was hailed as “the main and most widely used private provider of Internet services” in the country -- and a participant in major collaborations involving information and communications technology (ICT) with the Assad government dating back for years.
The computer servers and other (ICT) installed in U.N. offices in Syria, which operate at www.un.org under the auspices of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), are hosted at an Internet address owned by SCS.
Sharing the same Society-owned IP address as www.un.org are a flock of Syrian government departments, clearly identified by their “.gov.sy” listings, many of which have also worked in close partnership with UNDP for years.
Other U.N. organizations, including the U.N. relief agency known as UNHCR -- which is deeply involved in aiding refugees from the Assad reign of terror -- are hosted at another website address also owned by the Society.
According to a UNDP press spokesman, the agency’s relationship to the Syrian Internet provider is purely routine: “We contracted SCS services because it was the only organization with the required infrastructure and technical support able to provide Internet services.” He added that “servers hosted at UNDP’s Country Office in Syria are protected by a firewall system.”
Similar points were made by a spokesman for UNHCR.
In fact, in at least 79 of 166 UNDP country offices around the world, the organization bypasses local Internet services by using private -- and more secure --VSAT satellite transmissions for its Internet communications . The Syria office is not among the 79, though such services are readily available in the Middle East.
According to the UNDP spokesman, UNDP “has moved” to a VSAT system, but according to information on UNDP’s procurement website, the bidding for such a global system for UNDP seems to be ongoing.
Despite the claims that the relationship with SCS is nothing out of the ordinary, a cloud of puzzles still surround it, starting with the different and directly contradictory answers provided by the same UNHCR spokesman on two consecutive days when asked to explain a financial riddle.
Why, according to U.N. procurement records for 2010 and 2011, did the relief agency uniquely show the “location of the supplier” -- meaning the location of the payment – for “computer services” from SCS not, as other U.N. agencies did, in Syria but in Switzerland?
According to the first answer, the payments were merely made through UNHCR’s Swiss headquarters bank to “save costs and improve efficiencies.” The next day the spokesman added an update: forget that.
“UNHCR pays SCS locally in Syria and not through HQ Bank accounts in Switzerland as UNHCR complies with the necessary restrictions on international banking transactions,” the spokesman said. “There were no payments via Switzerland.”
The fact that two separate annual compilations of U.N. spending for two separate years showed the SCS supplier payments going to Switzerland, in computer-assembled statistical reports that also record numerous UNHCR payments -- in Syria -- for other goods and services used in Syria, is apparently “an error.”
Similar mind-bending might be required to consider SCS as no more than an ordinary Internet services provider.
As far back as 2009, the Paris-based organization Reporters Without Borders, which has called Syria “one of the world’s most repressive countries toward Internet users,” put SCS on a list of “Internet enemies,” and charged that SCS “can intercept emails and therefore monitor dissidents,” something that the regime had been doing for at least two previous years, tracking cyber-protesters through their IP addresses.
Also in 2009, in confidential State Department cables later published by the rogue website Wikileaks, U.S. diplomats relayed concerns from American relief organizations that unauthorized SCS employees were being placed in their offices without permission, in order, the diplomats said, to “keep tabs” on the grassroots aid groups as popular hostility to the Assad regime deepened.
More recently, allegations have surfaced in the human rights blogosphere that members of the so-called Syrian Electronic Army -- pro-regime hackers who have taken down or defaced news websites with cyber-attacks, or used them to spread disinformation about Assad’s opposition -- might have ties to SCS. These ties have never been fully demonstrated, says Paul Rosenzweig, a visiting senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation and a former deputy assistant secretary for policy in the Department of Homeland Security.
“Plausible. Likely,” he told Fox News. “Can you call it proven? No.”
The main point, though, he notes, is that “everything in Syria is under the government’s thumb.”
For his part, a UNDP spokesman said, in reply to questions from Fox News, that “UNDP has not been officially informed of any complaints by NGOs regarding surveillance activities by SCS. SCS does not have free access to UNDP premises.”
But there are connections between the Syria Computer Society and other Syrian institutions that are accused of more sinister intentions than spying and prying.
Also hosted at the IP address shared with UNDP is the Commercial Bank of Syria (CBS), a state-owned financial institution that has been under U.S. Treasury sanctions since 2006 for terrorist-related money laundering. On its website, www.cbs-bank.sy, CBS denies the money-laundering charges.
For the past year, however, the bank has also been under U.S. Treasury sanctions for something even more alarming: alleged financial ties to Syrian and North Korean organizations involved in ballistic missile production and creation of “unconventional” weapons of mass destruction, as well as ties to Iranian banks linked to that country’s own nuclear proliferation program.
Additional sanctions against the bank were levied by the European Union in October 2011, in a bid -- so far unsuccessful -- to stem the “appalling and brutal campaign the Syrian regime is waging against its own people,” according to the European Union’s top foreign affairs official, Catherine Ashton.
Along with electronic ties, there is a human link between the sanctioned bank and the Syrian Computer Society.
According to website information obtained by Fox News, a computer expert named Ghassan Fallouh, who is also a prominent academic at Syria’s International University for Science and Technology, has served on the boards of both institutions since 2010, and on the board of the Syrian Computer Society since 2006.
Fallouh’s university resume says that he also served from 1999 to 2004 as a “consultant to the UNDP for the [Syrian] Central Bank.”
Questions to Fallouh about the Syrian Computer Society, sent by Fox News on August 16, had not been answered by the time this article was published.
According to UNDP’s spokesman, “UNDP has no commercial relationship with CBS.”
Whatever the connections between SCS and other organs of the regime, experts argue, the Syrian Computer Society is much more than an Internet host for the U.N., the Assad government and alleged financiers of weapons of mass destruction.
It is an important “tool of the regime,” according to David Schenker, head of the program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a prominent bipartisan think tank, and a former adviser on Syrian affairs to then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
“When Assad came to power, he was the Internet president,” Schenker says. “He was setting the stage for how enlightened he would be. He made an effort to burnish the modern nature of the new regime,” with SCS as part of the effort.
Now, Schenker says, “we know he had no intention whatsoever of doing this.”
In the now-savage environment of Syria’s expanding civil war, the relationship between the U.N. and its cyber-host raises additional questions about UNDP’s long relationship with Assad, and the organization’s strategy of “national execution” of its programs in dangerous corners of the developing world.
That strategy makes the government itself the chief implementer of social programs created with UNDP technical assistance and supervision, and builds intertwining financial and work relationships between the world body’s representatives on the ground and key ministries and institutions that ultimately help to ensure the regime’s control.
It also apparently made UNDP consider the Syrian Computer Society as a “partner” of UNDP and a formal member of Syrian “civil society” in a planned six-year program to help transform Syria under Assad, from a Soviet-style centrally planned economy to a “people-centered social-market economy,” in UNDP’s phrase.
A version of a so-called “country program document” for Syria covering 2007-2011 (and later extended to 2012), was distributed to UNDP’s 36-country supervisory Executive Board on April 26, 2006, prior to their June meeting . A record of Executive Board decisions posted after the group’s subsequent meeting in September 2006, show that the body “took note” of the report -- U.N.-speak for passed it without making changes.
SCS is listed in an appended “results and resources framework” to that document as a private sector partner in two central UNDP initiatives, to improve “structures and climate for trade, investment and competitiveness,” and likewise improve “employment environment and opportunities for skills enhancement for the under- and unemployed, especially women and youth.”
According to the country program itself, the plan had also been approved by the Syrian government in February 2006.
According to UNDP’s spokesman, however, “although it was mentioned in UNDP’s results and resources framework, no agreement was made with SCS. Accordingly, the UNDP Syria country office has never had any development-related agreement with SCS.”