Brussels (AFP) – The EU and UN on Tuesday began a two-day push to drum up fresh aid pledges for war-torn Syria and reinvigorate the faltering Geneva peace process as the conflict enters its eighth year.
Donor countries, aid organisations and UN agencies are gathering in Brussels for the seventh annual conference on Syria’s future as international inspectors probe a suspected gas attack in the town of Douma, highlighting the brutal nature of the war.
The meeting comes in the wake of strikes by the United States, France and Britain on Syrian military installations, carried out in response to the alleged chemical weapons incident in Douma which has been widely blamed on Damascus.
EU officials hope to beat the $6 billion (5.6 billion euros) pledged at last year’s gathering, as forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad launched a new offensive against Islamic State jihadists entrenched in a southern district of Damascus.
The UN has warned that its own appeal for money for humanitarian work in Syria this year is less than a quarter funded, receiving less than $800 million of the $3.5 billion needed.
“Within the resources we can plausibly expect to mobilise this year we cannot meet even all the urgent needs,” Mark Lowcock, the head of UN humanitarian agency OCHA said at the start of the conference.
“Our focus is now to ensure the 5.6 m people we assess as being in acute need inside Syria are made the focus.”
Some 6.1 people are now internally displaced, more than five million have fled Syria and 13 million including six million children are in need of aid, according to the EU.
Lowcock said the “intensity of the humanitarian crisis has escalated again in 2018”, with more than 700,000 people displaced since the start of the year.
UN and EU officials are holding talks with aid groups working in Syria and neighbouring countries on Tuesday to get their views before government ministers arrive on Wednesday.
Save the Children International chief executive Helle Thorning-Schmidt urged donors to focus on education, saying a third of Syrian youngsters are out of school and a third of Syrian schools are unusable because of the war.
“We have let Syrian children down. This is the seventh year and they’re still being let down,” Thorning-Schmidt told AFP.
“2018 has been a very bloody year for Syrian children, and one of the things they are missing out on enormously is education.”
UN children’s agency UNICEF said some 2.8 million Syrian children had missed out on education, warning that in parts of the country simply going to school “has at times become a matter of life and death”.
– Pledges exceeded –
According to EU figures, the total given by the international community after last year’s conference was $7.5 billion — 25 percent more than pledged — with Germany, the United States and EU institutions leading the way.
Alongside the aid drive, the EU’s diplomatic chief Federica Mogherini will hold talks with the UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, on Tuesday as part of efforts to restart peace talks.
Eight rounds of talks under UN auspices in Geneva have made little headway, while Russia, Iran and Turkey launched a rival process in the Kazakh capital Astana last year.
Russia and Iran are Assad’s key allies and their military intervention in Syria is widely seen as tipping the balance in the civil war.
But the EU still insists the Geneva process is the best way to bring an end to the war.
“The only way to avoid that the Syrian crisis spirals into wider conflict is to put pressure on all parties including the Syrian regime to come to Geneva for meaningful discussions,” Mogherini said last week.
EU foreign ministers said the conference should be used to “reinvigorate” the Geneva process, but it is not clear how effectively the gathering will be able to do this.
As with previous editions of the conference, neither the Syrian government nor opposition groups will be represented. It also remains unclear who, if anyone, will come for Russia, Turkey and Iran.