BRUSSELS: International donors pledged $6.7 billion for conflict-wracked Syria at a conference in Brussels Tuesday, insisting the crisis had not be forgotten even as the Ukraine war grips world attention.
“This event today comes at a particularly difficult time,” said EU neighborhood commissioner Oliver Varhelyi.
“Our societies and economies, including the key donors are still struggling to recover from the pandemic while coping with the impact of the war in Ukraine.”
The $6.7 billion (6.4 billion euros) pledged outstripped the $6.4 billion raised last year, with the money to go to helping Syrians and to neighboring countries struggling with refugees — not to the Damascus government.
“Despite all the war in Europe, despite the COVID pandemic, donors are sending now a very strong signal to Syria and its region that we are ready to do even more than before,” Varhelyi said.
Much of the money will go to help Syrians who have taken refuge in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, as well as Egypt and Iraq.
Aid organizations have warned that the hit to global agricultural supplies from the war in Ukraine could exacerbate food insecurity in Syria.
The United Nations had said it was looking for $10.5 billion for 2022 to implement its humanitarian response to the Syrian crisis.
The UN special envoy to Syria, Geir Pedersen, told the Brussels conference that “Syrians have never needed your support more than they do right now.”
He said massive Syrian population displacement continues with little progress from Damascus on meeting international demands for political reform.
“The economic crisis continues and violence continues, with constant risk of escalation — even if there is something of a military stalemate,” he said.
He added that diplomacy had been made “even more difficult than it was before” by the effects of the war in Ukraine.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell ruled out a normalization of ties with Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government or a rebuilding program for Syria, saying “if you go and spend money reconstructing Syria, it is going to support the Syrian regime.”
The conference brought together around 70 countries and international institutions, including UN agencies. Russia, targeted by the West for its invasion of Ukraine, was not invited.
Borrell announced an extra one billion euros ($1.1 billion) covering 2022, bringing its total to 1.56 billion euros — the same as it pledged last year.
Overall the EU and its member states vowed 4.8 billion euros, or 75 percent of the entire total, according to Varhelyi.
The US ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said Washington was giving $800 million.
“Given the focus… we have on Ukraine, I thought it was important for me to come here from New York to say that we have not forgotten the Syrian people,” she said.
Humanitarian organization Oxfam welcomed the money that had been pledged but said that donors needed to refocus their priorities.
“For over a decade, there has been too much focus on emergency aid with limited focus on long-term solutions to problems like lack of food and water,” Moutaz Adham, Oxfam’s Syria country director, said in statement.
“What the Syrian people need is schools and hospitals, homes that can stand and are cleared of rubble and old bombs, and jobs, so they can feed their families and stop relying on aid.”
The Syrian war started in 2011 and is now in its 12th year, with more than half a million people estimated to have been killed.
The forces of Assad, with backing from Russia and Iran, have been battling rebels opposed to his rule, most of them in Syria’s northwest.
According to UNHCR, 5.7 million Syrians have registered as refugees, while UNICEF says 9.3 million Syrian children need aid both inside the country and in the wider region around Syria.