Netherlands stops supporting Syrian aid project over suspected extremist ties

The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs temporarily halted the Netherlands' support for an aid project in Syria due to concerns that some of the money ended up with extremist groups. Since 2014 the Netherlands contributed 12.6 million euros to the Access to Justice and Community Security Project, which includes the Free Syrian Police, AD reports.

The Free Syrian Police is an unarmed police service set up after the start of the civil war in the country. The aim is to provide 'peace and justice' in areas controlled by the Syrian opposition. The Free Syrian Police is supported by the Access to Justice and Community Security Project. The Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, and Great Britain are among the six Western countries that contributed millions to the project over the past years, according to the newspaper.

The project came under fire this week after British television program BBC Panorama reported that extremist group Nour al-Din al-Zinki forced the Free Syrian Police in the Aleppo region to transfer 20 percent of its salaries to the group, because they protected the five police stations in the region. According to the BBC, this happened until 2016.

The program also reported that in another region the Al Nusra front, which is linked to al-Qaeda, chose officers for the Free Police. According to the BBC, these officers also cooperated with courts that imposed executions and stoning as punishment. A man told the BBC that members of the Free Syrian Police were aware of torture happening in the prison where he was detained. 

BBC Panorama based these reports on verbal sources as well as internal documents from Adam Smith International, the British aid organization that set up the Access to Justice and Community Security Project.

Adam Smith International called the BBC program "false and misleading", according to AD. BBC Panorama reported that six officers may have links with an extremist group, the aid organization said, adding that it's six out of over 3,400 Free Syrian Police officers. The BBC says it has evidence of 2 thousand dollars going to extremist groups, Adam Smith International said. That's a very small part of the millions of euros invested into the project, according to the organization. 

The British Ministry of Foreign Affairs suspended cooperation with the project and launched an investigation into these claims. Britain is the largest investor in the project. Denmark and the Netherlands will help with this investigation, a spokesperson for the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed to AD. "There are risks involved in the execution of these kinds of programs in Syria. The situation in the country is complex and chaotic. But every euro that falls into the wrong hands is of course one too many", the spokesperson said to the newspaper. "The Dutch contribution - and that of our international partners the United Kingdom, Germany, Denmark and Canada - has been put on hold."