BRUSSELS: The EU and UN on Wednesday rallied donor countries and aid groups to support a devastated Syria at a conference overshadowed by a suspected chemical attack blamed by the West on Damascus.
The Brussels meeting, co-chaired by the European Union and United Nations, is a follow-up to last year’s London conference which raised $11 billion (10 billion euros) for humanitarian aid programmes.
UN chief Antonio Guterres said, “the horrific events of yesterday demonstrate unfortunately that war crimes are going on in Syria.”
“This conference must represent a moment of truth where the international community” finally comes together to settle the war and give the Syrian people hope, he said.
The conference is also meant to support UN-sponsored peace talks in Geneva on solving a conflict which has claimed more than 320,000 lives and displaced most of the Syrian population.
Delegates stressed the importance of both tracks after at least 72 civilians including 20 children died in a suspected chemical weapons attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhun in Idlib province.
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson told delegates it was “impossible for us to ignore the horrific attack” and pointed the finger of blame firmly at Damascus.
But he said they were also seeking “very big pledges again today” to help not only Syria but also Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, where most of the five million external refugees are now living. Another 13.5 million displaced people are still inside Syria, according to the UN.
The UN has warned that the plight of the refugees was getting “desperate,” as of the 4.7 billion euros, only 433 million had so far been pledged. A further 3.4 billion euros is needed for internal humanitarian aid.
Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri urged donors to “invest in peace.”
“Ladies and gentlemen, the current situation in Lebanon is a ticking time-bomb,” he told the conference.
The Brussels conference will not deal with the key sticking point in the Geneva talks – the rebels and their international backers demand that he must step down while Moscow and Tehran show no sign of abandoning their ally.
Assad’s main backer Russia, which is also represented at the Brussels conference, said Tuesday’s attack happened after a Syrian air strike hit a “terrorist warehouse” containing “toxic substances.”
EU Foreign Affairs Chief Federica Mogherini admitted it was “surreal especially today” to be discussing the “post-conflict situation.”
“But if you want peace you have to start building peace and the conditions for peace”, she said, urging a “strong push to the political talks in Geneva.”
Delegates made clear that aid for reconstruction would not be forthcoming until there was a genuine political transition to a new Syrian government without Assad.
“Our publics will not accept that their money go in any way to those responsible for these crimes,” Johnson said, referring to the Idlib attack.