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Gulf leads UN appeal for major boost in Syrian aid

Wednesday - 1/30/2013, 3:24pm  ET

By BRIAN MURPHY
Associated Press

KUWAIT CITY (AP) - An emergency U.N. appeal to raise $1.5 billion in humanitarian aid for Syria exceeded its goal Wednesday at a conference with dire predictions of rising civilian costs and Jordan's king saying the refugee crunch has pushed his nation's resources to the breaking point.

"We are sending a message to Syrians: You are not alone," said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon even as he described Syria as caught in a "death spiral" and the conditions for many civilians a "living hell."

Wealthy Gulf nations _ traditionally on the sidelines as major donors to U.N. aid efforts _ took the lead in the latest drive with at least $900 million offered in a sign of their expanding political profile since the Arab Spring and their role as critical regional backers of the Syrian rebels.

But the success of swiftly pulling together the funds was tempered by reminders that the aid is expected to cover the relief costs only until summer, highlighting the massive burden to cope with needs from Syria's civil war and its spillover in a region where refugees are sometimes pouring into camps at the rate of 3,000 a day. The concern was evident from Ban even as he lauded the current outpouring, noting that more nations will be asked to give and others may have to dig deeper as the Syrian crisis grows.

The current pledges also will likely face close scrutiny on how quickly the money will reach over-stretched aid groups directed by the U.N. and other agencies. Officials in Egypt and elsewhere have complained that many generous international offers for help after the Arab Spring upheavals have not yet materialized.

Another serious challenge is trying to gain access to civilians in rebel-held territory, aid officials said. The U.N. and other international groups must operate out of the Syrian capital, Damascus, and can be left struggling to arrange convoys through battle lines and making contacts with opposition groups.

"We know we are not reaching all the people who need to be reached," said the U.N.'s humanitarian chief, Valerie Amos, who held talks earlier this week with Syrian officials.

Ban opened the one-day gathering in Kuwait by calling for an end to the fighting "in the name of humanity," yet noted that the fighting shows no signs of easing and crises such as the refugee exodus to places such as Turkey and Jordan could intensify.

Jordan's economic council said the country was already pushed to the limit.

The kingdom has spent more than $833 million on aid for refugees _ accounting for nearly half the estimated 700,000 people who have fled Syria _ and that it was unable to sustain a financial burden that has so far siphoned off about 3 percent of its GDP. Some U.N. officials say the refugee figures could approach 1 million later this year if the conflict in Syria does not ease.

"We have reached the end of the line. We have exhausted our resources," said Jordan's King Abdullah II.

Last week, the king amplified his appeal for international help at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, saying "the weakest refugees are struggling now just to survive this year's harsh winter" and up to 3,000 a day are still crossing the Syria-Jordan border.

In his opening remarks to delegates at the donors' conference, Ban urged all sides "and particularly the Syrian government" to halt attacks in the 22-month-old civil war that the U.N. says has claimed more than 60,000 lives.

"In the name of humanity, stop the killing, stop the violence," Ban told envoys from nearly 60 nations, including Russia and Iran, key allies of Assad's regime.

Aid officials estimate that more than 2 million Syrians have been uprooted or are suffering inside the country as the conflict widens _ including what peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi called "unprecedented levels of horror" in an address to the U.N. Security Council after at least 65 bodies were found Tuesday in a suspected execution-style killing near Aleppo.

Before the latest donors' conference, Ban described the international humanitarian response to Syria as "very much limited" in comments to the official Kuwaiti News Agency.

But the meeting opened with Kuwait's ruler, Sheik Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah, promising $300 million. It was quickly matched by Gulf partners Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which are all major backers of Syrian rebel factions. Among other contributions that pushed the total past the U.N. goal was $184 million from Gulf non-government groups and charities.

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