Gulf leads UN appeal for major boost in Syrian aid

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Associated Press

Posted on January 30, 2013 at 3:01 PM

Updated Wednesday, Jan 30 at 8:34 PM

KUWAIT CITY (AP) — An emergency U.N. appeal to raise $1.5 billion in humanitarian aid for Syria exceeded its goal Wednesday at a conference with dire predictions of rising civilian costs and Jordan's king saying the refugee crunch has pushed his nation's resources to the breaking point.

"We are sending a message to Syrians: You are not alone," said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon even as he described Syria as caught in a "death spiral" and the conditions for many civilians a "living hell."

Wealthy Gulf nations — traditionally on the sidelines as major donors to U.N. aid efforts — took the lead in the latest drive with at least $900 million offered in a sign of their expanding political profile since the Arab Spring and their role as critical regional backers of the Syrian rebels.

But the success of swiftly pulling together the funds was tempered by reminders that the aid is expected to cover the relief costs only until summer, highlighting the massive burden to cope with needs from Syria's civil war and its spillover in a region where refugees are sometimes pouring into camps at the rate of 3,000 a day. The concern was evident from Ban even as he lauded the current outpouring, noting that more nations will be asked to give and others may have to dig deeper as the Syrian crisis grows.

The current pledges also will likely face close scrutiny on how quickly the money will reach over-stretched aid groups directed by the U.N. and other agencies. Officials in Egypt and elsewhere have complained that many generous international offers for help after the Arab Spring upheavals have not yet materialized.

Another serious challenge is trying to gain access to civilians in rebel-held territory, aid officials said. The U.N. and other international groups must operate out of the Syrian capital, Damascus, and can be left struggling to arrange convoys through battle lines and making contacts with opposition groups.

"We know we are not reaching all the people who need to be reached," said the U.N.'s humanitarian chief, Valerie Amos, who held talks earlier this week with Syrian officials.

Ban opened the one-day gathering in Kuwait by calling for an end to the fighting "in the name of humanity," yet noted that the fighting shows no signs of easing and crises such as the refugee exodus to places such as Turkey and Jordan could intensify.

Jordan's economic council said the country was already pushed to the limit.

The kingdom has spent more than $833 million on aid for refugees — accounting for nearly half the estimated 700,000 people who have fled Syria — and that it was unable to sustain a financial burden that has so far siphoned off about 3 percent of its GDP. Some U.N. officials say the refugee figures could approach 1 million later this year if the conflict in Syria does not ease.

"We have reached the end of the line. We have exhausted our resources," said Jordan's King Abdullah II.

Last week, the king amplified his appeal for international help at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, saying "the weakest refugees are struggling now just to survive this year's harsh winter" and up to 3,000 a day are still crossing the Syria-Jordan border.

In his opening remarks to delegates at the donors' conference, Ban urged all sides "and particularly the Syrian government" to halt attacks in the 22-month-old civil war that the U.N. says has claimed more than 60,000 lives.

"In the name of humanity, stop the killing, stop the violence," Ban told envoys from nearly 60 nations, including Russia and Iran, key allies of Assad's regime.

Aid officials estimate that more than 2 million Syrians have been uprooted or are suffering inside the country as the conflict widens — including what peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi called "unprecedented levels of horror" in an address to the U.N. Security Council after at least 65 bodies were found Tuesday in a suspected execution-style killing near Aleppo.

Before the latest donors' conference, Ban described the international humanitarian response to Syria as "very much limited" in comments to the official Kuwaiti News Agency.

But the meeting opened with Kuwait's ruler, Sheik Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah, promising $300 million. It was quickly matched by Gulf partners Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which are all major backers of Syrian rebel factions. Among other contributions that pushed the total past the U.N. goal was $184 million from Gulf non-government groups and charities.

On Tuesday, the European Union and the U.S. promised a total of nearly $300 million.

The head of the U.S. delegation, Assistant Secretary of State Anne Richard, lauded the donations from Gulf nations, which often bankroll their own aid efforts but are not traditional top donors to U.N. programs. She noted, however, that the humanitarian funds are to deal only with immediate needs over the coming months.

"It's good for now, but predictions are that it's not going to be over soon," said Richard, who deals with refugee and migration affairs.

While international aid channels are open to refugee camps in places such as Turkey and Jordan, there is far more limited capacity to organize relief efforts inside Syria because of the fighting and obstacles from Assad's regime.

Paris-based Medecins Sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders, said the U.N. and others need to open more routes for aid to reach rebel-held areas, which now receive only a "tiny share" of international humanitarian help.

"The current aid system is unable to address the worsening living conditions facing people who live inside Syria," MSF president, Marie-Pierre Allie, said in a statement.

The Syrian opposition, meanwhile, has been hobbled by divisions and infighting, which in part has discouraged donors from offering more assistance.

In a sign of persisting friction, Syrian opposition leader Moaz al-Khatib came under criticism Wednesday for comments he allegedly made offering to hold direct dialogue with representatives of the Assad regime if the government releases tens of thousands of political prisoners.

The Syrian government said last week that opposition figures would be allowed safe return to Damascus for national dialogue — an offer flatly rejected by most opposition leaders.

The comments by al-Khatib, who heads the Syrian National Coalition umbrella group, were allegedly posted on his Facebook page, but appear to have been taken down later.

Instead, was a posting: "There are those who sit on their couches and say ... do not negotiate. We don't negotiate about the regime remaining, but for its departure at the lowest cost in blood and destruction."

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Associated Press writers Dale Gavlak in Amman, Jordan, and Zeina Karam in Beirut contributed to this report.

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