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UN seeks major aid boost for Syrian 'catastrophe'

Wednesday - 1/30/2013, 3:08am  ET

FILE - In this Tuesday Jan. 8, 2013 file photo, Syrian refugees make their way in flooded water at a temporary refugee camp, in the eastern Lebanese Town of Al-Faour near the border with Syria, Lebanon. International aid officials are framing a new appeal for help in easing Syria's humanitarian crisis in terms not seen since the height of the Iraq war: Refugee numbers possibly swelling toward 1 million and more than double that figure in need of help inside the country. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla, File)

BRIAN MURPHY
Associated Press

KUWAIT CITY (AP) -- International aid officials are framing their latest gathering on Syria's humanitarian crises in terms not seen in the region since the height of the Iraq war: Refugee numbers possibly swelling toward 1 million, more than double that number in need of help inside the country and political policymaking among Bashar Assad's foes torn between the battlefield strategies and the civilian costs.

The urgency for a dramatic increase in international relief funds for Syria -- seeking total pledges of $1.5 billion -- will be the central message Wednesday in Kuwait from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and other leaders such as Jordan's King Abdullah II, whose nation is struggling with more than 320,000 refugees and more arriving every day.

The meeting also seeks to reorient some of the political calculations among Western nations and allies supporting the Syrian rebels. With the civil war nearing its two-year mark and no end in sight, U.N. officials and others are pressing governments to recognize the potential long-term humanitarian burdens and spread resources and support to both the Syrian opposition and the millions of people caught in the conflict.

"The crisis is not easing on any front," said Jens Laerke, a spokesman for the U.N. office in charge of coordinating humanitarian affairs. "It's relentless."

The venue in Kuwait also highlights the increasingly high-profile role of Persian Gulf nations in Syria's civil war.

The Gulf states, led by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, have been key backers of the political opposition against Assad and have urged for stepped up arms shipments to rebel fighters -- a call that has met resistance from the U.S. and Western allies fearing that heavy weapons could reach Islamist militant factions that have joined the rebellion.

Now, the wealthy Gulf nations may come under direct calls to significantly boost contributions for U.N.-led humanitarian efforts in addition to their own pledges, including $100 million promised by Saudi Arabia in December for Syrian relief and $5 million from the United Arab Emirates this month for the refugees in Jordan.

Representatives from more than 60 nations are expected at the one-day conference, possibly including envoys from Assad's main allies Iran and Russia. They are unlikely to be put under specific diplomatic pressures, but could face uncomfortable descriptions of civilian deaths in a nearly 2-year-old civil war that the U.N. says has claimed more than 60,000 lives.

Last week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Syria's bombardment of citizens should be declared a war crime and aid groups must be given greater access to help displaced or suffering people inside the country. Relief groups, however, have struggled in Syria because of shifting front lines and risks of kidnapping or convoys commandeered. The U.N. also has pulled back some staff in Damascus as fighting intensified in the capital.

Also in Davos, the U.N.'s humanitarian chief, Valerie Amos, called the Syrian humanitarian situation "already catastrophic."

"What we are seeing now are the consequences of the failure of the international community to unite to resolve the crisis," she said before heading to Damascus for a two-day visit that included talks with Syrian officials.

While the Kuwait meeting is certain to showcase the strong international coalition against Assad's regime, it also will underscore the shortfall in nailing down funds for humanitarian relief.

Laerke said the U.N. has in hand less than 4 percent of $519 million sought for aid inside Syria. Nearly $1 billion more in emergency money is now needed for the refugee influx into neighboring nations. U.N. officials say more than 21,000 Syrian refugees have arrived at Jordan's sole refugee camp in just the past week.

"This is the just the six-month price tag," he said. "This just gets us through the middle of year."

On the eve of the Kuwait meeting, President Barack Obama authorized an additional $155 million in humanitarian aid for the Syrian people as his administration grapples for a way to stem the violence there without direct U.S. military involvement.

The fresh funding brings the total U.S. humanitarian aid to Syria over two years to $365 million, according to the White House. Officials said the money was being used to immunize one million Syrian children, purchase winter supplies for a half million people, and to help alleviate food shortages.

"The relief we send doesn't say 'Made in America,' but make no mistake -- our aid reflects the commitment of the American people," Obama said in a video announcing the addition funding, which was posted on the White House website.

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