Support to Syrian rebels "could've gone better", Dutch FM says

The non-lethal aid the Netherlands provided to various armed rebel groups in the Syrian Civil War "could have gone better", Minister Stef Blok of Foreign Affairs said in a parliamentary debate about the NLA program on Tuesday. However, he does not think it went "unreasonably wrong", and he rejected the suggestion that the Netherlands gave large-scale support to terrorist groups that violated human rights, NU.nl reports.

The NLA program made headlines in the Netherlands over the past weeks after Trouw and Nieuwsuur revealed that at least one of the 22 armed groups the Dutch government supported is considered a terrorist organization by the Public Prosecutor. A Dutch man is currently being prosecuted for participating in terrorist organization Jabhat al-Shamiya. The government knew that Jabhat al-Shamiya was accused of violating human rights when they started giving it non-lethal aid, according to the news agencies. 

Another group that received Dutch support, the Sultan Murad Brigade, is accused of violating the law of war. On Monday the two news agencies also revealed that part of the goods the Dutch government sent to Syria, ended up with Jabhat Al Nusra, the Syrian branch of Al Qaeda.

When the NLA program was launched in 2015, the government promised that it would only support "moderate" groups that adhere to the law of war, human rights and did not cooperate with extremists. They received no weapons, but non-lethal aid in the form of pick-up trucks, uniforms, laptops and the like. The program cost 25 million euros.

On Tuesday the Foreign Affairs Minister admitted that the Netherlands did not select all the groups that received support itself. For security reasons he could not say specifically which groups received support, but did say that he could not exclude that aid ended up with groups that committed human rights violations.

A majority in the Tweede Kamer, the lower house of Dutch parliament, called for an external and independent investigation into the NLA program. VVD, CDA, D66, ChristenUnie, GroenLinks PvdA and SGP want the advisory committee on international law issues CAVV and the advisory council on international affairs AIV to carry out the investigation. The investigation should focus on support to the Syrian groups, but should also lead to a new procedure with stricter rules for supporting armed groups abroad.

The current policy on this type of support leaves the Kamer "out of play", ChristenUnie parliamentarian Joel Voordewind said. "We did not get to see what kind of help there was and where the help went", he said. Sadet Karabulut of the SP added: "We could not check whether the support met the conditions."

Blok agreed that the checks on the support could be "sharper" and that in future "more systematic testing should be carried out". He proposed that future support to such groups be handled more extensively with the Kamer. 

Another concern for the Kamer was whether this aid fit into the framework of international law. When launching this program, the government did not consult with its independent external international law adviser, a position created specifically to advise on this kind of difficult issue. Instead internal international law advisers advised on this issue. The external adviser, Andre Nollkaemper told Nieuwsuur and Trouw that the Netherlands had gone too far with the delivery of goods in this case. According to him, the support could be at odds with international law.

According to Blok, the deliveries were not in conflict with international law because it involved only non-lethal goods. He pointed out that, for example, agreements were made that no machine guns could be mounted on the Dutch provided pick-up trucks. And the aid could not be used for the purpose of overthrowing Syrian president Assad.

CDA parliamentarian Pieter Omtzigt accused the Minister of living in a "paper reality". He pointed to statements made by former Foreign Minister Bert Koenders, who several times expressed the cabinet position that there is no room for Assad in Syria. 

The SP filed a motion of no confidence against the Minister. It was supported by the PVV, PvdD, DENK and FvD, but did not get majority support and was therefore rejected.  

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