Success and scepticism as Syria donor conference kicks off

Success and scepticism as Syria donor conference kicks off
In-depth: As billions of dollars are pledged, many Syrians remain sceptical.
6 min read
04 February, 2016
As nations pledge billions, Syrians inside the country fear they will be left out [twitter]
As the Syrian donor conference in London kicked off on Thursday, nations pledged to give billions of dollars to aid Syrian refugees, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel saying she would spend $2.6 billion by 2018.

"I hope this will be a good day for people who live in such suffering," Merkel said in images broadcast on German television as the international meeting got underway.

The United States added another $890 million to the Syrian humanitarian aid effort, pledging increased support for refugee aid.

Addressing the summit of donor nations in London, Kerry said that $600 million in new funding would go on urgent aid to refugees and beleaguered populations in and around Syria.

"The United States has provided over $4.5 billion to help Syrian refugees and those displaced within Syria, and I'm proud that that makes us the largest single external donor in the world," Kerry said.

A further $290 million will go to provide schooling for refugee children in Jordan and Lebanon.

The US envoy urged the other countries represented in London to increase their own contributions to help deal with what he said was a "staggering" refugee crisis.

We know that the money you raise today in London is unlikely to reach us or alleviate the suffering in our besieged areas

World leaders are set to try and raise $9 billion for the 4.6 million Syrians who have been forced to seek refuge in the region - Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt - while hundreds of thousands have attempted to reach Europe.

"The Syria crisis is now in its fifth year and has had a dramatic, terrible impact on people in Syria - but also in the region," Justine Greening, the UK Secretary of State for International Development, told The New Arab correspondant Katia Youssef.

"The UK has been working from day one in Syria to help refugees who've been displaced in the country but also the 4.5 million who are outside the country."

She said that the aim of the conference was to make sure "the UN appeal gets as much support as possible".

"That's important because last year for the whole year the campaign was only half funded… so it's very difficult for NGOs in the region to provide the basic day-to-day support for people."

Much of the emphasis of the talks concerned provision for Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon, particularly in the realms of education and employment.

"We want to get every Syrian refugee child back into school by the end of this school year, and we want to create jobs in the region that can help ensure that Syrians are better able to sustain their own families," Greening said, saying this could be done by building new facilities, as well as doubling shifts in over-subscribed schools in host countries.

"We're determined to make sure the international community plays its role in helping the region and generous host countries to help them cope with that, have more support and make sure refugees have more support for their family members."

Scepticism from Syria

Many Syrians, however, particularly those who are among the five million trapped in areas of the country under siege, are not optimistic.

"We know that the money you raise today in London is unlikely to reach us or alleviate the suffering in our besieged areas," read a letter from a coalition of Syrians to the donor conference.

"The drip-feed of humanitarian aid will only alleviate a tiny proportion of this suffering," the statement published by The Syria Campaign added.

"We ask that you do everything in your power to protect ordinary Syrians from these war crimes. This would mean breaking the sieges, [and] establishing no-fly zones so that civilian communities are protected from the bombing and freeing detainees."

Many of the Syrian activists who were present at a Syrian civil society conference in London on Wednesday also questioned the wisdom of talking about aid while tens of thousands were being forcibly displaced from Aleppo, Latakia and rural Damascus.

"To me, it's a bit surreal to discuss building a school that they're only going to bomb later," said Marcell Shehwaro of Kesh Malek, an educational non-governmental organisation.

Shehwero also called for a no-fly zone to stop schools being targeted.
Reaching civilians affected in the conflict should be above the political question whatever side people are on
Justine Greening

"The humanitarian system is like a hospital with an accident and emergency department, what we need is longer-term support," said Greening.

"Everyone’s been shocked by the images from places that have been besieged," she added. "How can we do a better job to identify those areas and see those problems better?"

Medecins Sans Frontieres, a major international medical charity, has identified up to 50 areas under siege in Syria, the majority of which are surrounded by regime-allied troops.

"Of course the town of Madaya got a lot of international press, but its one of many places where its hard to reach people... We need to raise the issue of access and get progress on that," said Greening.

"We couldn't do a conference about doing a better job, without looking at the point... there are five million people we find it extremely hard to get to, and sometimes we can't get to them at all. Putting this on the table could find a solution."

Despite a petition signed by thousands of British citizens asking for the Royal Air Force to carry out food drops to Madaya and besieged areas of Syria, the UK said that this was only a last resort.

"We wouldn't rule out any options, but we want options to be effective - we've done airdrops on Mount Sinjar, for example, but that was something the Iraqi government requested. The UN agencies haven't asked us to do airdrops", said Greening.

"But some of the challenges are that [aircraft] have to be low down to be accurate... and its potentially unsafe considering the zones we are flying from."

UK politicians voted to carry out airstrikes on Islamic State group targets in Syria leading to many, including Syria Solidarity UK, to urge the government to "drop food, not bombs".

"We want people on the ground to make sure those most in need get it," Greening emphasised. 

Many of the besieged areas in Syria are run by opposition councils, who collect provisions and distribute them among the most needy of their populations. 

However, they frequently accuse the regime of refusing to permit aid to enter, and say the UN is doing little to help.

"In the end, there's no substitute to getting people who are saying no to access to start saying yes," said Greening. "I hope we'll be able to raise the issue of people who are besieged - but the long term solution is to find a peaceful settlement and allow for people to get on with their lives back home."

Concerning the talks in Geneva, Greening emphasised that the core issue in Syria should be one of protection of civilians.

As the donor conference kicked off, Syrian human rights monitors reported that more than 40,000 had been displaced by regime offensives in Aleppo, and hundreds of people, including civilians, had been killed this week alone.

Greening, however, was reluctant to single out perpetrators of atrocities in Syria.

"We have international law and we recognise that the political solution is a complicated one - but reaching civilians affected in the conflict should be above the political question whatever side people are on," she said.  

Yet the Syrians who wrote to the conference feel that the humanitarian question is also a political one. 

"It is not a natural disaster that has forced us into this position of dependence but the brutal punishment of the Assad regime, after men and women took to town and city squares to demand their political rights," the letter read.