UN seeks major aid boost for Syrian 'catastrophe'
International aid officials are framing their latest gathering on Syria's humanitarian crises in terms not seen in the region since the height of the Iraq war: Refugee numbers possibly swelling toward 1 million, more than double that number in need of help inside the country and political policymaking among Bashar Assad's foes torn between the battlefield strategies and the civilian costs.
The urgency for a dramatic increase in international relief funds for Syria - seeking total pledges of $1.5 billion - will be the central message Wednesday in Kuwait from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and other leaders such as Jordan's King Abdullah II, whose nation is struggling with more than 320,000 refugees and more arriving every day.
The meeting also seeks to reorient some of the political calculations among Western nations and allies supporting the Syrian rebels. With the civil war nearing its two-year mark and no end in sight, U.N. officials and others are pressing governments to recognize the potential long-term humanitarian burdens and spread resources and support to both the Syrian opposition and the millions of people caught in the conflict.
"The crisis is not easing on any front," said Jens Laerke, a spokesman for the U.N. office in charge of coordinating humanitarian affairs. "It's relentless."
The venue in Kuwait also highlights the increasingly high-profile role of Persian Gulf nations in Syria's civil war.
The Gulf states, led by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, have been key backers of the political opposition against Assad and have urged for stepped up arms shipments to rebel fighters - a call that has met resistance from the U.S. and Western allies fearing that heavy weapons could reach Islamist militant factions that have joined the rebellion.
Now, the wealthy Gulf nations may come under direct calls to significantly boost contributions for U.N.-led humanitarian efforts in addition to their own pledges, including $100 million promised by Saudi Arabia in December for Syrian relief and $5 million from the United Arab Emirates this month for the refugees in Jordan.
Representatives from more than 60 nations are expected at the one-day conference, possibly including envoys from Assad's main allies Iran and Russia. They are unlikely to be put under specific diplomatic pressures, but could face uncomfortable descriptions of civilian deaths in a nearly 2-year-old civil war that the U.N. says has claimed more than 60,000 lives.
Last week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Syria's bombardment of citizens should be declared a war crime and aid groups must be given greater access to help displaced or suffering people inside the country. Relief groups, however, have struggled in Syria because of shifting front lines and risks of kidnapping or convoys commandeered. The U.N. also has pulled back some staff in Damascus as fighting intensified in the capital.
Also in Davos, the U.N.'s humanitarian chief, Valerie Amos, called the Syrian humanitarian situation "already catastrophic."
"What we are seeing now are the consequences of the failure of the international community to unite to resolve the crisis," she said before heading to Damascus for a two-day visit that included talks with Syrian officials.
While the Kuwait meeting is certain to showcase the strong international coalition against Assad's regime, it also will underscore the shortfall in nailing down funds for humanitarian relief.
Laerke said the U.N. has in hand less than 4 percent of $519 million sought for aid inside Syria. Nearly $1 billion more in emergency money is now needed for the refugee influx into neighboring nations. U.N. officials say more than 21,000 Syrian refugees have arrived at Jordan's sole refugee camp in just the past week.
"This is the just the six-month price tag," he said. "This just gets us through the middle of year."
On the eve of the Kuwait meeting, President Barack Obama authorized an additional $155 million in humanitarian aid for the Syrian people as his administration grapples for a way to stem the violence there without direct U.S. military involvement.
The fresh funding brings the total U.S. humanitarian aid to Syria over two years to $365 million, according to the White House. Officials said the money was being used to immunize one million Syrian children, purchase winter supplies for a half million people, and to help alleviate food shortages.
"The relief we send doesn't say `Made in America,' but make no mistake - our aid reflects the commitment of the American people," Obama said in a video announcing the addition funding, which was posted on the White House website.
The European Union also promised another 100 million euros ($134 million) for Syrian relief aid, said the EU humanitarian aid commissioner, Kristalina Georgieva, in Brussels.
"They seem to be taking the appeals more seriously now when the conflict appears to be taking the shape of a crisis that will last for some time," said Ayham Kamel, a Middle East analyst at the Eurasia Group in London. "Most expected the Assad regime would be toppled by now, ending the crisis. In reality, however, the Assad regime is still there and the international community has no alternative but to face the crisis and managing refugees costs money."
The U.N. estimates more than 700,000 Syrian refugees have fled to surrounding countries - mostly Jordan and Turkey, but others to Lebanon and smaller numbers to Iraq. At least 2 million people inside Syria have been uprooted or face shortages of food or medicine.
Laerke said the refugee figures could push toward 1 million later this year if the current exodus remains. That could reach about half the refugee figure for Iraq in the years after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Amos, the U.N. humanitarian chief, said she hoped the Kuwait conference will bring "a wider range" aid donors than previous appeals that brought mostly Western pledges. She also is likely to stress the desperation of many in the cold months.
In Beirut on Monday, she described visiting a shelter in Damascus where many children were sick or had respiratory problems because of lack of heating fuel.
"It is so cold right now, health care is really important," she said.
In Jordan, about two dozen refugees moved into a school built by aid funds from Bahrain after their tents in the main camp were blown over by wind or flooded. The school is set to reopen next week.
"They haven't given us heaters, tents or trailers," said Abu Mohamed, a 35-year-old businessman who fled Damascus with his family. "Rain is forecast again. Doctors tell us at the camp hospital that our children are sick from the cold."
Associated Press writers Dale Gavlak in Zaatari, Jordan; Raf Casert in Brussels, and Barbara Surk and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report