Donors pledge Syria billions as UN meets on chemical attack

BRUSSELS (AP) — International donors pledged billions of dollars in aid for war-ravaged Syria as the U.N. Security Council convened Wednesday for emergency talks over a suspected chemical attack that killed dozens in a rebel-held province.

At a donor conference in Brussels, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appealed for Syria’s warring factions and government backers such as Russia and Iran to bring an end to a six-year conflict that has killed almost 400,000 people.

“Nobody is winning this war, everybody is losing,” Guterres said. “It is having a detrimental and destabilizing effect on the entire region and it is providing a focus that is feeding the new threat of global terrorism.”

Nearly half the Syrian population has been displaced by the violence, with millions seeking sanctuary in neighboring Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, or heading further west to Europe. U.N. agencies estimate war damage across Syria so far at $350 billion, including physical destruction and the loss of economic activity. Four out of five people are living in poverty.

“Behind these figures lies a gradual draining of hope and a turn toward despair that we must reverse,” Guterres said.

The conference began just a day after at least 58 people, including 11 children, were reported killed in a suspected chemical attack. It remains unclear who is responsible, but many fingers pointed toward Syrian President Bashar Assad.

“The world should not be shocked because it’s letting such a regime do what it is doing. What should shock us is the increase of children dying and that the whole world is watching,” Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri said. “Everyone is coming to Brussels to make a statement, and the regime made its statement in Syria.”

Hariri said Lebanon has been overwhelmed by the arrival of some 1.5 million Syrian refugees and “cannot sustain this issue anymore. The international community has to do something.”

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel noted that with the European Union divided over the refugee emergency, the bloc has failed to share responsibility for even a quarter of the 160,000 refugees that member countries promised to relocate from Italy and Greece. By contrast, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey as shining examples, he said.

“They’ve taken in an unbelievable number of refugees and they are relatively poor countries,” Gabriel said. “Sometimes I’m ashamed looking at the European debate going on.”

The aim of the conference, hosted by the EU with the United Nations, Britain, Germany, Kuwait, Norway and Qatar, was to drum up funds for Syria and the region and to support efforts to secure a lasting political solution to the war.

The long and onerous task of rebuilding Syria was also on the table, but no action will be taken until a political solution to the conflict is found.

The EU hoped the event attended by about 70 countries would generate financial support at the same levels of recent years, amid concern about donor fatigue. Officials said figures were hard to calculate and promised to provide a ball-park pledge number later Wednesday.

Last year’s conference in London raised more than $12 billion in pledges – $6 billion for 2016 and a further $6.1 billion for 2017-20.

According to U.N. relief coordinator Stephen O’Brien “for the immediate needs of 2017, we need about $8 billion,” but he said that aid cannot reach those in need without a cease-fire.

“You have to have access, you have to have security,” he said. “Once we have the funds we can deliver the programs that save lives and help to seek to protect civilians.”

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said the bloc aims to remain the top humanitarian donor and is to provide 560 million euros in 2018 for Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. It is also providing up to six billion euros over the next few years to Turkey for Syrian refugees there.

“We can start preparing the post-conflict. I know it sounds surreal, especially today. But if you want peace, you have to start building,” she said.