The United Nations yesterday launched its biggest ever appeal for humanitarian aid, seeking a record $6.5 billion (£4bn) for Syria and its neighbours.
The organisation called for help for 16 million people, many of them hungry or homeless victims of a conflict that has lasted 33 months with no end in sight.
The Syrian appeal accounted for half of an overall funding plan of $12.9bn for 2014 to help 52 million people in 17 countries, announced by UN emergency relief co-ordinator Valerie Amos at a meeting of donor countries in Geneva.
The money requested for Syria – covering food, drinking water, shelter, education, health services and polio vaccines – was the largest UN appeal ever for a single crisis.
Well over 100,000 people have been killed in a civil war that has uprooted millions of people, devastated many cities and wreaked havoc on the economy and basic public services.
Syria’s currency has plummeted by 80 per cent since the revolt began in March 2011, and destruction of the water network has left ten million people – almost half the pre-war population – relying on UN workers to chlorinate water.
“There are parts of country where for 22-23 hours a day people aren’t getting electricity. Fuel is scarce,” said Ms Amos, who visited Damascus briefly on Saturday to meet ministers.
“Even if the violence were to stop tomorrow we would have to maintain help on the humanitarian front.”
Ms Amos was cautious about chances of a breakthrough at peace talks between president Bashar al-Assad’s government and his opponents that are scheduled to begin in Switzerland on 22 January.
“Obviously the expectations have to be modest in this point of time,” she said.
The UN estimates that 250,000 Syrians are living under siege as winter bites, most of them in areas encircled by government forces, but also including 45,000 in two towns in the north that are besieged by anti-Assad rebels.
The UN Security Council issued a presidential statement on 2 October calling for protection of civilians, demilitarisation of schools and hospitals, and improved access for aid workers. Ms Amos said. “We have seen a modest shift in terms of some of the administrative burdens … [but] we are not seeing any progress in those areas so far.”
Ms Amos will convene a group of world powers and neighbouring countries – including Syria’s allies, Russia and Iran – for a second round of private meetings in Geneva this week, following similar talks on 26 November.
The head of MSF International, part of Médecins Sans Frontières, has written to the governments involved demanding an end to the Syrian government’s control of aid, since it limits or bans assistance being given to opposition areas, especially medical supplies.
The UN began airlifting aid from Iraq on Sunday, as it was too dangerous to go by land, said Antonio Guterres, head of the UN refugee agency.
The UN is seeking $2.3bn to help 9.3 million people in Syria next year. Its 2013 appeal was of $1.4bn – of which only 62 per cent has been received.
For five neighbouring countries – Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey – the UN is seeking $4.2bn to assist up to 4.1 million Syrian refugees and their host communities.
Mr Guterres said: “There is a tragedy in the plight of Syrian refugees, but let us not forget that they would have no place to go without the generosity of the neighbouring countries.”
The overall UN appeal for 2014 also includes aid to Sudan, South Sudan, Yemen, Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan and the Philippines.