The United Nations’ record-setting $6.5 billion appeal for humanitarian aid for Syria highlights the unsustainable scope of the crisis there. The appeal, which represents the largest-ever aid campaign that the UN has launched for a single country, would direct $2.3 billion to help 9 million internally displaced people inside Syria. But the lion’s share — $4.2 billion — would assist 4 million Syrian refugees in neighboring countries that are growing increasingly weary of their presence.
Syria’s refugee crisis is taking its toll on a fragile region that can ill afford it. The Zaatari refugee camp, home to some 150,000 people, is now the fourth-largest city in Jordan. Lebanon, a country of 4.4 million people, is hosting nearly 1 million Syrian refugees. They aren’t allowed to work, so they are living off their dwindling savings. There are no sanctioned refugee camps for Syrians in Lebanon, so refugees are forced to rent apartments, or live in makeshift tents and chicken coops in rural areas. Tension between the refugees and their host communities is putting a strain on a region that can ill afford it. The UN appeal — if it is fully funded — will help.
But the UN only managed to raise about 60 percent of its goal for Syria in 2013. Getting countries to live up to their pledges has been a problem. And donations from the general public for Syria have also been anemic. For instance, Oxfam, which raised $38 million from the public after the earthquake in Haiti, has only managed to raise $700,000 in public donations for Syria.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that a man-made conflict might generate less sympathy for victims than a natural disaster does. But that doesn’t make the humanitarian needs in Syria any less urgent. An estimated quarter of a million Syrians are living under siege, encircled by government forces and with little food or fuel for warmth. An additional 45,000 are believed to be living in brutal conditions in rebel-held territory, where some militias use flogging and inhumane detentions to punish suspected thieves and members of rival groups.
Despite this dismal situation, there are some small signs of progress. Russia, a top supplier of weapons to Syrian President Bashar Assad, has previously given almost nothing for humanitarian relief. But recently, Moscow began airlifting food.
The Assad regime recently announced that it would allow UN agencies to deliver planeloads of blankets, food, and medicine to Northern Syria — a rebel stronghold to which the government previously denied access. If it follows through and allows a significant amount of supplies to get to refugees, it would make an important difference. The Assad regime, which is deeply suspicious of international organizations, ought to realize that whatever credibility it has left in this conflict hinges on showing concern for all Syrians, not just its own supporters.
Given the duration of this conflict, which has dragged on for three years, aid groups must devise ways to save civilians inside Syria. Both the Assad regime and the rebels have been accused of using food as a weapon to gain the loyalty or obedience of people. That brutal practice must end. Both sides must do all they can to facilitate access by international aid groups. Oxfam, which is fixing water treatment plants so that millions can have the clean water, has been granted 18 out of 26 of its requests for visas for its employees to enter Syria. This is an improvement, but still far short of fulfilling the need.
Of course, in the long run, the best chance for Syria’s survival lies not in aid groups or the United Nations, but in an agreement between the regime and its opponents. A conference planned for next month is one step in that direction. The international community must continue to push for a ceasefire and an eventual settlement. The people of Syria and their neighbors cannot afford another terrible year.