BRUSSELS (AP) — International donors on Wednesday pledged an estimated $4.4 billion in humanitarian aid for Syria and neighbors sheltering its refugees in 2018, falling significantly short of the more than $7 billion the United Nations is seeking.
An estimated 450,000 people have been killed in fighting in Syria since President Bashar Assad's government cracked down on demonstrations calling for his ouster in 2011.
Last year, the World Bank estimated the damage to the country at close to a quarter-trillion dollars, and large swathes of Syrian's largest three cities, Aleppo, Damascus, and Homs, lay in ruins.
Eight years into the conflict, more than 13 million Syrians are in need of humanitarian assistance and around a quarter of the population is displaced in neighboring countries like Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, according to the U.N.
U.N. humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock described the pledges as a "good start" and said that based on previous years he expected the amount to grow. Still, he said that given the funds available the organization would have to save it for the most desperate cases. Non-governmental organizations were disappointed with the results.
Thanking the European Union — which hosted the donor conference involving around 85 delegations in Brussels — plus Britain and Germany for significant offers, Lowcock conceded that "we would like our appeal today to have been fully funded."
"We are talking about a large sum of money and there is a lot of pressure on the financiers," he told reporters.
"The key issue is to make sure .... priority is given to those in most need and those most vulnerable," he added.
Organizers later announced that a total of $3.4 billion more had been raised for 2019 and 2020.
The U.S. didn't make any pledge, according to the official conference list.
"Though the crisis is now in its eighth year, the unmet and growing needs of millions of men, women and children mean that donor countries cannot show any sign of fatigue," a coalition of nine NGOs, including Oxfam, Save the Children and World Vision, said in a statement. "This conference didn't go nearly far enough to provide adequate support to the millions of Syrians in need of assistance and who are left facing an uncertain future."
With fighting still raging, and the northern rebel-held province of Idlib in danger of fast becoming a new crisis zone, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini called on Russia, Iran and Turkey to use their influence in Damascus, saying they have a "special responsibility" to establish a cease-fire and to press Syrian President Bashar Assad to return to the negotiating table.
"We are seeing an escalation in military activities which is exactly the contrary" to what they promised, Mogherini said.
The EU had hoped the meeting would give impetus to stalled peace moves under U.N. auspices, on top of gathering humanitarian aid for Syria and for neighbors like Lebanon and Jordan, struggling to cope with millions of refugees.
Mogherini underlined that the EU — along with many around the table Wednesday — refuses to help rebuild Syria until meaningful peace moves to end the conflict resume in Geneva.
Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who faces elections in two weeks, said the plight of Syrians is simply getting worse.
"The bitter truth is that despite all our combined efforts, conditions have deteriorated. Lebanon continues to be a big refugee camp," he said.
Britain's State Minister for the Middle East, Alistair Burt, agreed that Syria's needs are enormous.
"This is the world's greatest protection crisis. If you look at what's happened and what's been done to people — breaches of humanitarian laws, the weakening of multilateral norms that we have seen for a long time — it's all focusing on Syria," he said.