BRUSSELS — International donors pledged $6 billion in aid for war-ravaged Syria on Wednesday as the U.N. Security Council held emergency talks over a suspected chemical attack that killed dozens in a rebel-held province.
Donors from more than 70 countries meeting at a conference on Syria in Brussels made a "collective pledge of $6 billion for this year alone," EU Humanitarian Aid Commissioner Christos Stylianides said.
Stylianides described the pledge — which appeared to approach the conference hosts' target — as "an impressive figure."
Syria's "needs are massive. Our conference is sending a powerful message," he said. We are not letting down the people of Syria."
However, the good will at the meeting was shadowed by the chemical attack Tuesday in Idlib that killed 75 people.
Responding to the grim news, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appealed for Syria's warring factions and government backers such as Russia and Iran to bring an end to a six-year conflict that has taken the lives of almost 400,000 people.
"Nobody is winning this war, everybody is losing," Guterres said. "It is having a detrimental and destabilizing effect on the entire region and it is providing a focus that is feeding the new threat of global terrorism."
Nearly half the Syrian population has been displaced by the violence, with millions seeking sanctuary in neighbouring Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, or heading further west to Europe. U.N. agencies estimate war damage across Syria so far at $350 billion, including physical destruction and the loss of economic activity. Four out of five people are living in poverty.
"Behind these figures lies a gradual draining of hope and a turn toward despair that we must reverse," Guterres said.
While it was unclear who was responsible for the chemical attack, many fingers at the Brussels conference pointed toward Syrian President Bashar Assad.
"The world should not be shocked because it's letting such a regime do what it is doing. What should shock us is the increase of children dying and that the whole world is watching," Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri said. "Everyone is coming to Brussels to make a statement, and the regime made its statement in Syria."
Hariri said Lebanon has been overwhelmed by the arrival of some 1.5 million Syrian refugees and "cannot sustain this issue anymore. The international community has to do something."
German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel noted that with the European Union divided over the refugee emergency, the bloc has failed to share responsibility for even a quarter of the 160,000 refugees that member countries promised to relocate from Italy and Greece. By contrast, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey as shining examples, he said.
"They've taken in an unbelievable number of refugees and they are relatively poor countries," Gabriel said. "Sometimes I'm ashamed looking at the European debate going on."
The aim of the conference, hosted by the EU with the United Nations, Britain, Germany, Kuwait, Norway and Qatar, was to drum up funds for Syria and the region and to support efforts to secure a lasting political solution to the war.
The long and onerous task of rebuilding Syria was also on the table, but no action will be taken until a political solution to the conflict is found.
Amid concerns about donor fatigue, the EU hoped the event would generate financial support at the same levels of recent years. Last year's conference in London raised more than $12 billion in pledges - $6 billion for 2016 and a further $6.1 billion for 2017-20.
According to U.N. relief co-ordinator Stephen O'Brien "for the immediate needs of 2017, we need about $8 billion," but he said that aid cannot reach those in need without a cease-fire.
"You have to have access, you have to have security," he said. "Once we have the funds we can deliver the programs that save lives and help to seek to protect civilians."
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said the bloc aims to remain the top humanitarian donor and is to provide 560 million euros in 2018 for Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. It is also providing up to six billion euros over the next few years to Turkey for Syrian refugees there.
"We can start preparing the post-conflict. I know it sounds surreal, especially today. But if you want peace, you have to start building," she said.
In a statement to the conference, U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence said the gathering was "critical for the Syrian people, for the greater Middle East, and for the entire international community."
Pence said Washington "stands ready to do our part to provide humanitarian resources to those impacted by the conflict in Syria."
Lorne Cook, The Associated Press