International donors pledge $7.7 billion in aid to Syria

The war in Syria, dragging on for nine years, has killed more than 380,000 people. [EPA/JAMAL NASRALLAH]

International donors pledged $7.7 billion in aid to face the ongoing humanitarian crisis at a Syrian aid summit co-hosted by the EU and the United Nations on Tuesday (30 June).

The meeting of donors in Brussels, which included some 60 governments and non-governmental agencies, was focused on humanitarian aid but not on reconstruction, which will happen only after the war is brought to an end.

Since it started in 2011, the war in Syria has killed more than 380,000 people and displaced nearly half of the country’s population.

Although the pledges were lower than the $10 billion sought by UN agencies, they were still higher than expected given the economic shock caused by the COVID-19 crisis.

The EU pledged nearly $2.6 billion over the next two years, while European countries individually pledged $3.6 billion for this year, plus another $2 billion for 2021.

“We recognise that the circumstances are very unusual, it is a difficult moment in every country to find the resources necessary to relieve the suffering of the Syrian people,” UN aid chief Mark Lowcock said after the virtual conference.

“An entire generation of Syrian children has only known war and it is still not over,” the EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell told reporters after the event.

The future of the Syrian people “is still held hostage and Europe cannot and will not look away,” he added.

A ‘particular difficult time’

According to international aid groups, over 80% of the country now lives below the poverty line, while 6.7 million were internally displaced and 6.6 million have sought refuge outside the war-ravaged country.

“I wish to stress that today’s event comes in particular difficult time,” said Janez Lenarcic, the European Commissioner for crisis management.

Against the “sobering background” of the COVID-19 pandemic, “we must be all the more pleased with the overall pledge of support,” he said after the meeting.

“We have today expressed solidarity with the Syrian people, not only with words, but with concrete pledges of support that will make a difference for millions of people,” Lenarcic added.

The pledges made at the Brussels conference to assist war-affected people inside Syria and its region, however, are not nearly enough to mitigate the humanitarian fallout of the crisis.

On the eve of the conference, Oxfam and other leading aid groups called for increased access and funding for millions of Syrians at risk of starvation.

According to Marta Lorenzo, Oxfam’s Middle East Director, the pledges are “simply not enough”.

“It’s shocking that the international community has failed to recognise the urgency of the situation despite clear calls from Syrian civil society,” she said.

The United Nations, which last year raised $7 billion, said it needs another $3.8 billion for the 11 million people inside Syria who need help and protection, while more than 9.3 million lack adequate food.

Another $6.04 billion is sought to help the 6.6 million Syrians who have fled, in what is the world’s biggest refugee crisis.

UN officials say they will still press for more pledges throughout the year, and say they have time as money is split between 2020 and 2021.

Sanctions and talks

In June, the US imposed new sanctions on Syria aimed at forcing President Bashar al-Assad into UN-brokered peace talks.

The first measures took effect under the Ceasar Act, which punishes any company working with the Assad regime.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the sanctions “the beginning of what will be a sustained campaign of economic and political pressure to deny the Assad regime revenue and support it uses to wage war and commit mass atrocities against the Syrian people.”

Pompeo said the goal was to force Assad into accepting UN Security Council Resolution 2254,  adopted in 2015, which called for a ceasefire, elections and political transition in Syria.

In response, a Syrian foreign ministry statement likened the behaviour of the US administration to that of “gangs” and “robbers”.

The EU has imposed its own sanctions over Syria.

On the military front, tensions have risen between US and Russian forces in Syria amid deepening mistrust against President Donald Trump’s dealings with Moscow.

After an escalation of violence displaced nearly a million people, Turkey and Russia agreed in March to halt hostilities in Syria’s northwest Idlib region.

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced he will discuss the Syrian conflict on Wednesday (1 July) with the leaders of Turkey and Iran. While Tehran and Moscow have supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Ankara has called for his ousting and backed opposition fighters.

The talks will be the first since September in the so-called Astana format, in which the three powers discuss developments in Syria, where the conflict has entered its 10th year.

(Edited by Frédéric Simon)

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