Jo Biddle, AFP
Last updated: 23 July, 2013

Kerry holds Syria crisis aid talks

Fresh from visiting a huge refugee camp, US Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday met with UN and aid organization leaders to discuss ways to help millions caught in Syria’s crossfire.

With no end in sight to the conflict now in its 28th month, the grim toll keeps rising — some 100,000 people have been killed and 1.8 million Syrians have fled to neighboring countries.

Up to four million people are also believed to have been displaced by the fighting inside Syria’s borders, where local aid workers risk their lives daily to cross shifting frontlines to supply vital food and water.

Last week, Kerry flew over the sprawling Zaatari refugee camp in northern Jordan — home to some 115,000 refugees, mostly women and children — and was briefed on the daily struggle for families, many of whom have witnessed horrific brutality.

“We are having a very difficult time being able to access people, move people, protect people,” Kerry said at the start of the high-level talks in the State Department.

UN and NGO leaders say the Syrian conflict is the worst they have seen since the genocide in Rwanda in 1994.

Fears are growing that the conflict is spilling over the country’s borders, destabilizing already vulnerable neighbors such as Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq.

“We intend to have a very solid, in-depth discussion today about creative ways that we can meet our obligations to human beings who are in huge danger,” Kerry added.

He was meeting with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres as well as the heads of the World Food Program, UNICEF and the International Red Cross.

His visit to Zaatari had been “unbelievably moving,” Kerry said. “They need the help of the world and it is my privilege to meet today with the people providing that help.”

The United States is the largest single donor to UN-run relief programs for the Syrian refugees, having already pledged some $815 million.

But unlike in natural disasters, such as earthquakes and tsunamis, charities and non-governmental organizations say appeals for public donations are largely falling on deaf ears.

With President Bashar al-Assad appearing to make some gains on the ground, and the Syrian opposition still struggling to unite, aid organizations are digging in for a long, protracted war.

And while the United States has said it will increase its direct support to the Syrian opposition, it has repeatedly refused to confirm whether that would include arms.

It appears lawmakers have paved the way for increased support to the rebels, according to the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee Mike Rogers.

“After much discussion and review, we got a consensus that we could move forward with what the administration’s plans and intentions are in Syria, consistent with committee reservations,” he said in a statement.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki refused to reveal the specifics, saying only that “part of that is expanding the scope and scale of aid on the ground.”

“I wish I could speak more to that, but I just can’t detail it,” she told reporters.

“The president has asked his national security team, as you know, weeks ago, to continue to consider additional options. And those discussions are ongoing.”

Aid workers are now mulling longer term plans for housing and feeding millions of refugees, educating children and caring for medical needs, even as they deal with the daily crisis of some 6,000 people fleeing the fighting.

Last month the United Nations launched its largest-ever appeal, calling for $4.4 billion in donations to help the Syrian people.

But moves to organize a peace conference between the regime and the opposition have so far faltered, with the opposition unable to agree on its representatives.

The United States and Russia are meanwhile at odds over which countries — notably Iran — should sit at the table.

Organizers had hoped the conference could be held in Geneva in May, but the earliest estimates are now for some time in September.