The Dutch government took significant risks with its 2015 support programme for opposition groups in Syria, according to a government commission under the leadership of a former army commander.
The foreign affairs ministry ‘punched well above its weight’ with the non-lethal assistance programme, which aimed to help moderate groups in Syria, the report said. In particular, it is unclear where the help ended up and which groups were actually supported.
The programme, which cost an initial €27 million, included supplying trucks, uniforms and tents to 22 opposition groups from 2015 to the beginning of 2018 but was stopped because Dutch support for the rebels did ‘not had the desired effects’, ministers said at the time.
‘In a war situation such as the one in Syria, keeping a complete overview of all the groups involved is by definition impossible,’ Friday’s report said. ‘It would also be unrealistic to expect that armed groups in this conflict – including those supported by the Netherlands – would be able to keep clean hands.’
The commission was set up by the previous government following highly critical publications by Nieuwsuur and Trouw which raised questions about the support and the nature of the groups which had benefited.
In particular, Nieuwsuur and Trouw claimed at least one of the groups had been branded a terrorist movement by the Dutch public prosecution service, which was involved in a court case against one of its members at the time.
The new report said there are no indications that the government supported groups which were terrorist or jihadist in nature, but added that the foreign affairs ministry did not have sufficient oversight to assess if the groups were moderate.
The conditions imposed by the ministry gave the impression that proper checks were carried out, the report said. ‘In reality, the Netherlands did not have the ability to independently vet groups, nor did it have the ability to independently and accurately monitor them. The Netherlands relied on allies and private implementing organisations for vetting and monitoring.’
Foreign minister Wopke Hoekstra said in a reaction that at the time of the programme the situation in Syria was ‘extraordinary and destabilised’. There was widespread support within political circles for support for those opposing president Assad’s regime, he said.
The government will give a more detailed response at a later date.
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