Syria aid billions of dollars short of 2018 goal, UN says

International donors on Wednesday pledged an estimated $4.4 billion US in humanitarian aid for Syria and neighbouring countries sheltering its refugees in 2018, falling significantly short of the more than $7 billion the United Nations is seeking.

Omar Alghabra announces Canada's contribution at donor conference in Brussels

A man walks past damaged houses in the old city of Aleppo in July 2017. The civil war in Syria has been raging since 2011. (Omar Sanadiki/Reuters)

International donors on Wednesday pledged an estimated $4.4 billion US in humanitarian aid for Syria and neighbours sheltering its refugees in 2018, falling significantly short of the more than $7 billion the United Nations is seeking.

An estimated 450,000 people have been killed in fighting in Syria since President Bashar Assad's government cracked down on demonstrations calling for his ouster in 2011.

Last year, the World Bank estimated the damage to the country at close to a quarter-trillion dollars, and large swathes of Syrian's largest three cities, Aleppo, Damascus, and Homs, lay in ruins.

Eight years into the conflict, more than 13 million Syrians are in need of humanitarian assistance and around a quarter of the population is displaced in neighbouring countries, including Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, according to the UN.

Canada was among 85 delegations attending the donor conference in Brussels, with Liberal Omar Alghabra, parliamentary secretary to the minister of Foreign Affairs, announcing a commitment of $19.5 million US.

"Millions of people affected by the conflict in Syria still require urgent help, with many struggling to meet their basic needs," said Algahbra in a statement. "Today's announcement of funding will provide much-needed relief to help meet the needs of those — too often women and children — most severely affected by this tragedy and help alleviate some of their suffering."

Of the amount, $2 million is directed to Lebanon, which has dealt with a massive influx of refugees during its eastern neighbour's war. Overall, the monies are directed to funds seeking to improve health, water and hygiene services, as well as providing protection services.

It is part of an overall pledge of $840 million in humanitarian assistance over three years Canada approved in 2016 as part of the mission to combat Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock described the pledges overall as a "good start" and said that based on previous years, he expected the amount to grow. Still, he said that given the funds available the organization would have to save it for the most desperate cases.

About $6 billion was amassed last year.

Thanking the European Union plus Britain and Germany for significant offers, Lowcock conceded that "we would like our appeal today to have been fully funded."

"We are talking about a large sum of money, and there is a lot of pressure on the financiers," he told reporters.

No word from the Americans

The U.S. has yet to submit a pledge.

"A number of important donors have not yet been in a position to confirm their financing for 2018," Lowcock said. "That includes the United States, which has been providing more than $1 billion a year to Syria and the region in recent years."

While the United Nations said more money may still come in, Washington is reviewing its Syria policy, including humanitarian support, and U.S. President Donald Trump has questioned the value of such aid.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said his country will provide one billion euros ($1.22 billion US) in new funding for 2018 and subsequent years.

With fighting still raging, and the northern rebel-held province of Idlib in danger of fast becoming a new crisis zone, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini called on Russia, Iran and Turkey to use their influence in Damascus, saying they have a "special responsibility" to establish a ceasefire and to press Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to return to the negotiating table.

"We are seeing an escalation in military activities which is exactly the contrary" to what they promised, Mogherini said.

European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini Mogherini urged Russia, Iran and Turkey to help push for a ceasefire in Syria. (The Associated Press)

The EU had hoped the meeting would give impetus to stalled peace moves under UN auspices, on top of gathering humanitarian aid for Syria and for neighbours like Lebanon and Jordan, struggling to cope with millions of refugees.

Mogherini underlined that the EU — along with many around the table Wednesday — refuses to help rebuild Syria until meaningful peace moves to end the conflict resume in Geneva.

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who faces elections in two weeks, said the plight of Syrians is simply getting worse.

"The bitter truth is that despite all our combined efforts, conditions have deteriorated. Lebanon continues to be a big refugee camp," he said.

Britain's State Minister for the Middle East, Alistair Burt, agreed that Syria's needs are enormous.

"This is the world's greatest protection crisis. If you look at what's happened and what's been done to people — breaches of humanitarian laws, the weakening of multilateral norms that we have seen for a long time — it's all focusing on Syria," he said.

With files from CBC News and Reuters