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Syrian people 'feel increasingly abandoned' by world

UN chief urges Security Council to overcome its divisions on Syrian war
Syrians cross a street to take cover as a government helicopter flies over the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on 29 January, 2014 (AFP)

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged the Security Council on Thursday to overcome divisions and take action to end the war in Syria as the conflict entered its fifth year with little prospect for peace.

The appeal came on the heels of scathing criticism from 21 human rights and aid groups who accused world powers of "failing Syria" in a report that highlighted the worsening plight of civilians.

"The Syrian people feel increasingly abandoned by the world as they enter the fifth year of the war that has torn their country apart," Ban said in a statement.

The suffering continues "under the eyes of the international community, still divided and incapable of taking collective action to stop the killing and destruction," he said.

"I call upon the Security Council to take determined measures to resolve this crisis and on the way forward."

The Security Council has been plagued by deep divisions over how to put Syria on the road to peace, with Russia blocking moves to punish its ally President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus.

A plan by UN peace envoy Staffan de Mistura for a freeze in fighting in the northern city of Aleppo appears to be making little headway, as the death toll mounts.

Last year was the deadliest yet in the war, with at least 76,000 people killed out of more than 210,000 since it began on March 15, 2011 with peaceful demonstrations, inspired by the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt.

More than four million Syrians have fled to neighbouring countries and 7.6 million civilians are displaced within the country.

While world powers were rightfully mobilising to defeat Islamic State militants, "our focus must continue to be with the Syrian people," Ban said.

Another push for accountability

The UN chief called on the international community to "unite and lend its full support" to UN efforts to forge a deal for a political transition in Syria and to bring those responsible for atrocities to justice.

"Each day brings reports of fresh horrors," Ban said, citing executions, arbitrary arrests, abductions and torture.

"We have an obligation to the Syrian people to help ensure that serious crimes committed over the past four years do not go unpunished," he said.

Russia and China last year vetoed a Security Council resolution on referring Syria to the International Criminal Court for war crimes prosecutions.

Diplomats have said there could be another push for accountability, but there are no signs that Russia would allow Assad's government officials to face ICC investigations.

In their report, the aid groups including Oxfam and Save the Children gave the Security Council a "fail grade," pointing to three resolutions that were adopted last year to help civilians, but never implemented.

UN agencies are struggling to deliver aid to 4.8 million Syrians who live in "hard to reach" areas, besieged by government forces or controlled by IS militants.

International funding for refugees and displaced civilians has dropped, with UN officials complaining of "donor fatigue" from governments worldwide.

Ban is due to chair a donors conference in Kuwait on 31 March to help raise millions of dollars needed to address Syria's deepening humanitarian crisis.

Jan Egeland, a former UN undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs who now heads the Norwegian Refugee Council, told AFP that the crisis was a "betrayal of our ideals, because we're not supposed to be watching people suffer and die in 2015."

Ban also urged the Syrian government to "take decisive steps" to end violence and to begin a political process. 

"Governments or movements that aspire to legitimacy do not massacre their own people," he said.

'Assad's desperation to cling to power'

Meanwhile, the United States on Thursday renewed its call for Assad to step down, marking the fourth anniversary of the civil war by paying tribute to "the brave Syrians" fighting tyranny.

"For four years the Assad regime has answered Syrians' calls for freedom and reform with unrelenting brutality, authoritarianism and destruction," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters.

"As we have long said, Assad must go and be replaced through a negotiated, political transition that is representative of the Syrian people."

Without the departure of Assad, it would not be possible "to fully stabilise" the country, Psaki said.

"On this sombre occasion, we are reminded of all those who suffered and of the brave Syrians who stand up to tyranny and continue to struggle for a future of respect for basic rights, tolerance and prosperity."

The United States led efforts to convene peace talks in Geneva last year which brought together the Syrian opposition and government representatives. But the talks collapsed after two rounds amid bitter recriminations and no fresh negotiations have been scheduled.

The US special envoy to Syria, Daniel Rubinstein, wrote in a message: "Assad's desperation to cling to power through daily terror reminds us all that he has long lost legitimacy and he must give way for a real political transition."

"Let us recognise that the courageous Syrian people - and neither a dictator nor foreign fighters – must determine their future," he added in a post on the US embassy's Facebook page.