Kuwait City - Western nations and their Gulf Arab allies led the promises of support at a fundraising conference in Kuwait on Wednesday that generated pledges of at least $2.4 billion to alleviate the suffering of Syrians affected by the country's relentless civil war.
Millions of Syrians have been driven from their homes as a result of the crisis, both inside the country and in neighbouring states struggling to cope with the influx. Getting aid to many of those in need inside Syria is a challenge because they remain trapped in communities besieged by the fighting.
The United Nations is asking for a staggering $6.5 billion this year to help Syrians affected by the war, its largest-ever funding appeal for a single crisis. Officials did not expect to raise the entire amount in Kuwait but hope the gathering focuses greater international attention on the conflict.
“The fighting has set Syria back by years, even decades,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said at the start of the event at the lavish Bayan Palace in the Kuwaiti capital.
Ban said humanitarian and development agencies “face unprecedented demands” because of the crisis, and that it “is vital ... the burden be shared” in helping meet Syria's growing aid needs.
Kuwait's emir, Sheik Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah, opened the conference by pledging $500 million, significantly topping the OPEC member nation's pledge of $300 million last year.
He pressed the UN Security Council to exert greater effort in bringing an end to the crisis, and urged all those fighting in Syria to “put the fate of their country and the safety of their people above all other considerations.”
Kuwait's Gulf neighbour Saudi Arabia promised an additional $60 million, saying that would boost its existing round of funding to a total $250 million, though it did not specify the time period. It promised $300 million at last year's conference.
Nearby Qatar also promised $60 million Wednesday.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said the US pledge of $380 million will bring brings America's humanitarian aid contribution to Syrian victims to $1.7 billion since the war began. Half of the money - $177 million - will go to UN programs for victims still in Syria. The rest is for neighbouring nations that have taken in an estimated 2.3 million refugees.
“We are under no illusion that our job, or any of our jobs here, are to just write a check,” said Kerry, who blamed Syrian President Bashar Assad for starving his people and blocking international aid workers from providing aid in some of Syria's hardest-hit areas.
“The international community must use every tool at our disposal to draw the world's attention to these offenses,” he said. “'They are not just offenses against conscience. They also are offenses against the laws of war.”
The United Kingdom announced a pledge of 100 million pounds, or $164 million, with International Development Secretary Justine Greening saying that “the scale of suffering that this crisis has caused is hard to exaggerate.”
The European Union pledged 165 million euros, or $224 million.
Even violence-wracked Iraq, which has taken in more than 200 000 refugees, mostly in the largely autonomous Kurdish north, promised $13 million in aid.
The UN said other major pledges included $407 million from a consortia of Islamic non-governmental organisations, $120 million from Japan, $75 million from Norway, $51 million from Italy, $37 million from Denmark, $35 million from Sweden, $34 million from Switzerland, $27.6 million from Ireland, $27.6 million from France, $18 million from the Netherlands, $10 million from Oman, $9 million from Australia, $7.6 million from Belgium and $7 million from Luxembourg.
Much of last year's $1.5 billion raised in Kuwait total came from Western-allied Gulf states. Humanitarian needs have escalated dramatically since a similar donor conference in the oil-rich Gulf nation last January.
The United Nations warns that 9.3 million people inside Syria need assistance as the conflict grinds on, including about 6.5 million inside Syria who have been driven from their homes.
More than 2 million people have been uprooted from their homes, many scattered in refugee camps and informal settlements dotting neighbouring Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq.
The Kuwait meeting takes place a week before peace talks on Syria are due to be held in Switzerland. The UN chief on Tuesday visited a Syrian refugee camp in northern Iraq, where he praised the largely autonomous Kurdish regional government for hosting more than 200 000 refugees on territory it administers.