US to donate almost $1 billion to ease Syrian crisis

By Carol Morello | The Washington Post | Published: February 4, 2016

LONDON  — Secretary of State John F. Kerry on Thursday said the United States would send more than $900 million in humanitarian and development aid to Syria and its neighbors burdened with a refugee crush that could take years to ease.

In a sum that is likely to swell as the year goes on, Kerry said $600 million will go to the United Nations and other agencies for emergency food, shelter and health in Syria and neighboring countries, where millions of refugees have fled. Much of the rest will go to provide schooling for refugee children in Jordan and Lebanon.

About a quarter of all U.S. humanitarian aid last year was tied to the Syrian war, which grew out of anti-government protests in 2011. According to State Department calculations, the latest donation brings U.S. total funding to $5.1 billion, the largest of any country by far.

The conference on Syrian aid efforts — the first since refugees began spreading across Europe last year — is overshadowed by the sudden suspension of Geneva peace talks that seemed to offer the best hope of bringing an end to the fighting in Syria.

A "pause" in the talks was called until at least Feb. 25 after the opposition and government delegations failed to agree on conditions required to get them started.

In a speech to diplomats from 79 countries attending the conference, Kerry characterized the stumble in the talks as a "temporary recess." He predicted talks would resume later this month.

As a precondition for negotiations, the opposition has insisted on a halt to the bombing of civilian areas by Russian warplanes and the Syrian government it backs. It also demanded that sieges be lifted to allow humanitarian access.

Kerry adopted an identical stance Thursday.

In remarks to reporters, Kerry said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had "agreed we need to discuss" how to implement a cease-fire and get the Syrian government and the opposition to allow humanitarian access to besieged areas.

"We will, I am confident, find a way to move forward," said Kerry, standing alongside British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond.

Hammond said the diplomats at the donor conference are all "very keen to keep the momentum going" in the talks, and suggested there is no better option on the table.

"We recognize it's difficult for the regime to be at the table talking to the opposition," he said. "It's difficult for the opposition to talk to the regime when their people at home are being killed through bombing and other forms of attack.

"But we have to continue this process. It's the only way to get a solution to the disaster that is engulfing Syria."

The delay in peace talks underscored how the lengthy Syrian war shows no signs of easing.

Three previous pledging conferences, all held in Kuwait, have raised about half of what was sought for Syria and its burdened neighbors. This fourth conference has drawn several European countries as hosts, and delegates appear to be more resigned to the long road ahead.

"There is also the realization the Syria crisis is a protracted emergency, and requires more than humanitarian assistance to the victims of the conflict," said a senior administration official, speaking anonymously under State Department ground rules.

Much of the discussion has revolved around getting humanitarian aid to refugees and the displaced, who together number 17 million. Also discussed were efforts to expand jobs and schools.

Officials say they are needed not only for refugees but for citizens of the neighboring host countries that are bending under the stress of hosting so many desperate people.

King Abdullah II of Jordan said his country is at a "boiling point," as a quarter of Jordan's budget goes to refugees who need education, health care and social services.

"Sooner or later, I think the dam is going to burst," said the king.

David Miliband, a former British foreign secretary who now heads the International Rescue Committee, has called for 1 million work permits for Syrian refugees in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, saying it was time to "end the fiction" that the crisis was a short-term problem.

"And that's only possible if those countries are offered massive, long-term financing for adjusting their economic and social infrastructure to meet the new reality," he said. "There has to be an economic offer both to the countries and to the refugees"

Simon O'Connell, the executive director of Mercy Corps Europe, said even if the fighting ended tomorrow it will take a decade or longer to rebuild Syria enough so millions of refugees can go home.

"There's been a huge breakdown in the social fabric inside Syria," he said at the conference. "It will take time for people to go home, rebuild their lives and livelihoods."


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