MARK LEON GOLDBERG

We can help Syrians without sending in soldiers

Special to The Globe and Mail

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, right, prepares ahead of the opening ceremony of the International Humanitarian Pledging Conference for Syria at Bayan Palace on the outskirts of Kuwait City on Jan. 30 (STEPHANIE MCGEHEE/REUTERS)

Leaders are gathering in Kuwait on Wednesday for a day-long conference to raise money for the humanitarian side of the international response to the Syrian crisis. With no prospect for a Libya-style intervention and little expectation for a peace agreement on the ground, the UN hopes to raise $1.5-billion (U.S.) to meet the basic needs of people affected by conflict inside Syria and across the region over the next six months.

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Whether or not the international community meets that goal is a good measure of countries’ commitment to the welfare of the Syrian people.

Syria today is the worst humanitarian crisis on the planet – and it is getting worse by the day. At least 60,000 people have been killed; 700,000 people have fled the country; and a further two million people are displaced internally. Thirty-thousand people have arrived in a single refugee camp in Jordan since the New Year alone. In all, the UN estimates that four million people across the region require some form of humanitarian assistance.

As is typically the case, women and children are suffering the most. Their needs are growing proportionally to the intensity of the fighting by the men on the frontlines. “This is primarily a children’s crisis,” Panos Moumtzis, the UN Refugee Agency’s regional co-ordinator for the Syria crisis told a panel at the U.S. Capitol in Washington earlier this month. “It is overwhelmingly children and families that are fleeing.”

With the immense scale of suffering involved, there is a deep moral urgency to do something about this crisis, but there is no clear sense that an international military intervention would do more good than harm. Providing for the basic necessities of Syrians caught in the conflict is a way to demonstrate solidarity with the Syrian people, while avoiding the trap of intervention.

So far, though, the international community’s response has not been commensurate to the requirements. In 2012, donors committed just over $1.06-billion for Syria, which represented only 70 per cent of the total humanitarian requirements. With the conflict getting worse, the number of people in need of food, shelter, and medicine is rapidly increasing. Relief organizations need more money over the next six months than they raised all of last year.

Agencies like Unicef, the World Food Program and NGOs like Save the Children and the International Federation of the Red Cross/Red Crescent are not flush with cash. When a crisis hits, they must go to donors hat-in-hand to feed people, inoculate children from disease, provide clothing to protect against the harsh winter and other very basic services to keep human beings healthy. When appeals are less than fully funded it can mean that populations are literally left in the cold.

That is already happening in Syria, despite the widespread international attention. “A funding shortfall…is affecting the ability of the UN and its partners to deliver vital assistance, including food, water and medical supplies”, John Ging, the Director of Operations for the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs told the UN press corps on Monday.

The U.S. has been the single largest donor to the Syrian humanitarian response, committing $355-million, including a $155-million pledge toward the $1.5-billion six-month plan announced Tuesday. Canada has been in the middle of the pack, giving $22-million in 2012 .

This support will help mitigate the suffering of ordinary Syrians, but it is clearly not enough. In Kuwait, we will see whether the rhetoric of solidarity is met with actual commitments that would improve the welfare of Syrians. With international diplomacy on Syria at a standstill and the civil war showing no sign of abating, coming to Kuwait with an open wallet is the least the international community can do to support the Syrian people.

Mark Leon Goldberg is Editor of UN Dispatch and PSI’s Impact Blog and co-founder of The DAWNS Digest global news curation service. He appears on Twitter as @MarkLGoldberg