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Don't give up on Syria, aid groups say in push to raise $6bn

Aid agencies warn of 'staggering need' for money to help millions of Syrians, as global donors convene in Brussels to discuss funding
Aid agencies are seeking $6bn from donors as the Syrian war enters its eighth year

The international community must not give up on Syria in the face of "staggering" need, opposition groups and aid agencies have warned, as global donors meet in Brussels with hopes a minimum of $6bn can be raised to help the millions whose lives have been torn apart by war.

As the Syrian war enters its eighth year, 85 governments and NGOs are meeting in Brussels on Tuesday and Wednesday to raise funds for humanitarian aid, amid tensions between the West and Russia, a key player in the crisis on the side of the Syrian government.

Aid agencies are warning that as Syria faces a deadly year for civilians, they are unable to meet humanitarian requirements and the international response to the crisis is "critically underfunded".

The international aid response for 2018 is only 23 percent funded. Yet the aid agencies have warned that more than 700,000 people have been internally displaced by violence this year alone, including around northern Idlib province and Afrin in the Aleppo countryside.

The world saw what happened in Eastern Ghouta. But the question is what will happen to the millions of civilians still living in opposition-held areas 

- Lidia Giglio, International Rescue Committee

More than seven million Syrians are living in areas where there is a high risk of injury or death from unexploded bombs and ordinance, while fresh United Nations data shows that the government in Damascus approved less than a quarter of aid convoy requests last year, compared with 45 per cent in 2016.

The second annual UN-EU conference on Syria comes in the wake of a significant victory by Syrian government forces in Eastern Ghouta, but also after US, French and UK jets struck military bases in Syria thought to contain President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons stockpiles. Meanwhile, in Geneva, the UN-led peace process is hamstrung.

Lidia Giglio, policy officer at the International Rescue Committee, told MEE that while discussion focused on the "endgame" in Syria, recent escalations in violence meant demand for humanitarian aid is higher than ever.

"While international donors gather in Brussels, they must not lose focus on what is happening on the ground in Syria," she said.

"The world saw what happened in Eastern Ghouta. But the question is what will happen to the millions of civilians still living in opposition-held areas such as Idlib, Daraa and north of Homs, who may next face the risk of increased bombardment and even the brutal siege, starve and surrender tactics used so far with impunity."

A man carries an infant injured during government bombing in Hamouria, Eastern Ghouta region on 19 February 2018 (AFP)

Basic needs and political deadlock

The Brussels conference, the third annual event since one in London in 2016, hopes to agree projects that could help see the return of some electricity and water services to key Syrian cities.

However, there is political gridlock over a transition deal in Syria, and the European Union and United States have both ruled out assistance for reconstruction while Assad remains in power.

Instead, the majority of the aid is likely to be earmarked for the more than five million refugees outside Syria, as well as the millions displaced within, including some 160,000 people who fled the Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta over the past six weeks as the Syrian army and its ally Russia took control of the rebel stronghold.

According to EU figures released ahead of the summit, the total given by the international community after last year’s conference was $7.5bn – 25 per cent more than pledged.

Germany, the US and EU bodies led the way. But aid agencies are quietly concerned that after seven years of war in Syria, this year it may be a more difficult challenge to guarantee international pledges.

Turkey and Iran coming

Turkey’s deputy prime minister, Recep Akdag, Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, and the United Nations special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, are all expected to attend, according to Reuters.

Syrian women, for example, have routinely been left standing outside the conference hall, with no one listening to their concerns and insights

- Shaheen Chughtai, Oxfam Syria crisis team

Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, has been invited but it is not clear he will attend. The UK will be represented by Penny Mordaunt, the secretary of state for international development, and Alistair Burt, the Middle East minister, a Foreign Office official told MEE.

Shaheen Chughtai, head of policy for Oxfam’s Syria crisis response team, told MEE the conference was a crucial moment for the international community and governments of the Middle East to prove they are keeping their promises.

"Their promises [are] to protect children, women and men caught in conflict, to provide a safe and dignified sanctuary to refugees in the region and beyond, and to support the communities sheltering the vast majority of refugees in countries neighbouring Syria," he said.

Chughtai said NGOs welcomed aid pledges, but said the international community needed to "listen to Syrians themselves, and talk to them, not just about them" during the conference.

He said: "Syrian women, for example, have routinely been left standing outside the conference hall, with no one listening to their concerns and insights."

Syrian forces have overwhelmed several opposition areas in recent months, forcing hundreds of thousands of civilians from their homes (AFP)

Syrian opposition groups say peace is only possible in the country if the UN and EU ensure the protection and involvement of Syrian civil society groups, the targeting of civilians and forced displacement is prevented, and a special tribunal for war crimes is established.

Maria Alabdeh, executive director of Women Now For Development, a Paris-based Syrian NGO, said: "As Syrian human rights and humanitarian workers, we are doing all we can to empower young men and women, train local leaders, document human rights abuses, advocate for property rights, and treat traumatised children. But we can’t do it alone."

She said that the international community must "hold perpetrators to account" and help Syrian NGOs which are "operating under fire from Russian and Syrian planes".

Last year, the lack of high-level officials from the US, Russia and Turkey undermined political efforts at the conference. This year, the EU’s top diplomat Federica Mogherini is appealing to the trio of Iran, Russia and Turkey – three key powers with direct military involvement in the war – to support a lasting ceasefire to allow aid access and medical evacuations.

However, her plea in February for a 30-day humanitarian pause has had little impact, and the situation on the ground in Syria has since escalated.

The Syrian government and the opposition will not be represented at the conference, though civil society groups will meet with diplomats on Tuesday, an EU official told MEE.

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