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Syrian donors pledge record $10bn but peace talk failures sour mood

Syrian delegates, invited to the conference for the first time, insist aid can only be a small part of larger political solution
German Chancellor Angela Merkel (centre) pledged $1bn this year (AFP)

LONDON – Donor countries and world leaders on Tuesday pledged $10bn in aid for Syria, surpassing the $9bn target and making the London conference the most successful one-day aid drive in history. However, with fighting raging in Aleppo and the peace UN's much-vaunted peace talks currently suspended, grave questions about whether the aid will prove to be anything more than a sticking plaster remain. 

German Chancellor Angela Merkel topped the donor list by pledging $1bn this year and a further $1.3bn in future years. 

Her commitment was greeted with applause from delegates who include many Western and Middle Eastern heads of state. The UK, Norway and Kuwait have all also made sizeable commitments. 

Donors estimate that the pledges will allow them to put one million Syrian refugee children who are not in school back into the classroom by the start of the next school year. They also say that they will be able to create one million jobs for Syrians as well as locals in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. 

The British prime minister, David Cameron, pledged $3.3bn over the next four years, and said that today's commitments showed that the world stood with Syria and would continue to do so "for as long as it takes". 

But he also warned that the "achievements are not a solution to the crisis - we still need to see a political transition".  

Much is being made of a shift in aid priorities, which will focus much more on creating jobs and providing education, rather than focusing just on aid provision.

“Education has been a key focus,” Caroline Anning, Save the Children's humanitarian emergencies media manager, told Middle East Eye. “Crucially what we are seeing this time around is a serious push toward policy changes. There has been a realisation that money is no use if there are no school places or if the parents can’t work and so the children are forced to.”

Turkey last month agreed to start issuing a certain number of work permits for Syrians, with donors lauding pledges from Jordan and Lebanon to also do more to free up the work place. Lebanon, however, had strongly resisted pressure to follow suit, with aid groups saying that the pledges and proposed reforms will be all but impossible to implement within Syria itself.

Fighting rages on

Security was tight at the QEII centre event, the third major international aid conference on Syria, but only the first one to invite Syrian delegates to attend.

A representative of the Syrian Civil Defence teams, known as the Syrian white helmets, told the conference that all the money in the world could not make up for the killing of a child or a destruction of a family, while warning that the killing and devastation was set to continue, no matter how much money was raised. 

Talks between the main Syrian opposition groups and the Syrian government were suspended on Wednesday after the opposition refused to proceed while the government and its Russian allies continued to launch a large-scale and bloody drive against the rebels in northern Syria.

Munzer Makhous from the High Negotiations Committee (HNC) told AFP that the US must press Russia to stop its bombing.

"The balance needs to change, at least so it can be equal between the government and the opposition so each side can then make compromises," he said.

US Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday called on his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov to implement a ceasefire, but the men only appear to have agreed that the pause in negotiations should be "as short as possible".

In London, as police helicopters hovered above and the police came out in force, a small group of Syrian opposition supporters gathered to voice their frustration with the lack of political progress and what they said were shallow pledges.

Abdullah Allabwani, a Syrian student from Zabadani near the Lebanon border, told MEE that there could be no solution as long as Bashar al-Assad remained Syrian president.

"The main problem is Assad. If you want to support Syria, in addition to money and political support - if you don't deal with the main source of the problem - Assad - it won't be useful,” he said.

“Every moment is critical. We don't want to lose any time. Syrian people have lost any kind of trust with the Americans. They stood with us as friends from the beginning, now we see they took a step back,” he added.

Chris Doyle, the director of Council for Arab-British Understanding (Caabu), also stressed that the aid pledges rang hollow without a harder push for peace.

“It says a lot that the two conferences [aid and peace] are happening basically at the same time but at two different locations. This is indicative of the challenges we have faced since the start of the crisis where the donor countries have had to cough up for the failure or total lack of any serious political process.”

Dozens of Iranian demonstrators also gathered outside the conference to protest at the arrival of Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in London, who they blame for propping up the Syrian government and arming Assad. 

Protestors demonstrate against Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif's presence at the London donor conference (AFP)

Regional approach 

A bulk of the money pledged is expected to go to regional countries harbouring millions of refugees, in hopes that refugees there will be able to gain better access to education and the work force. 

"We need to get Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon on side if we want any of the policy reforms to be enacted and if we want the pledges to make a real difference," said Anning of Save the Children.

Jordan in particular has made it very clear that it couldn't do any more without serious donor assistance, threatening to close its borders to new arrivals of refugees without fresh aid. Recent restrictions on the Syria-Jordan border have trapped thousands of Syrians in dire conditions in makeshift camps

But some aid groups have also criticised the calls, saying that they were politically motivated. 

"We object to the policy of containment that is an undercurrent to this conference," Vickie Hawkins, UK executive director of Doctors Without Borders, said in a statement issued before the start of the conference, which it is boycotting. 

"By attempting to address the underlying reasons that people are fleeing the overwhelmed countries bordering Syria, the conference is sending a clear message: don't come to Europe."

"Governments such as the UK have been clear that they are packaging humanitarian aid into their wider agenda for Syria.

"This blurring of the lines between humanitarian aid and military engagements has serious consequences for the ability of organisations such as MSF to argue that we are not part of a political agenda," she added. 

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