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Syria peace talks stall, but countries pledge billions more in aid

Nobel Peace Prize winner, Malala Yousafzai (L) listens as Muzoon Almellehan of the Malala Fund speaks at the donors Conference for Syria in London, Feb. 4, 2016.

TOBY MELVILLE/REUTERS

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has warned that the war in Syria "cannot go on like this," as donor nations pledged billions more in aid to refugees after negotiations to end the conflict were suspended for lack of progress.

The leaders of Jordan and Lebanon – which together host almost two million Syrian refugees – piled on more grim news by telling an international donors' conference in London that their countries were near the breaking point if the world did not do more to help.

Mr. Ban, in opening remarks to the fourth annual Supporting Syria conference, said the apparent collapse of the peace talks – which UN envoy Staffan di Mistura put on hold until Feb. 25 after failing to get the two sides to agree to even sit in the same room during six days of shuttle negotiations in Geneva – showed how far apart the supporters and opponents of President Bashar al-Assad still are.

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Mr. Ban appeared to blame the regime and, by extension, its Russian and Iranian allies, for refusing to agree to rebel demands for the lifting of sieges as a precondition for face-to-face talks.

"It is deeply disturbing that the initial steps of the talks have been undermined by the continuous lack of sufficient humanitarian access, and by a sudden increase of aerial bombing and military activities within Syria," he said. "I agree fully with [Mr. di Mistura] that we should not have talks for the sake of talks. The coming days should be used to get back to the table, not to secure more gains on the battlefield."

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, whose government supports the Assad regime, said he hoped that the pause in the Geneva talks would be "temporary."

There were few encouraging signs on the ground, however. Government forces – fighting alongside Lebanon's Hezbollah militia – have made a series of rapid gains around the rebel-held city of Aleppo in recent days, advances facilitated by relentless Russian air strikes. The Syrian army said Thursday that the shattered city, which was home to more than two million people before the war, was now almost completely surrounded.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told the London conference that Turkey – which already hosts about 2.3 million Syrians – was bracing for as many as 70,000 more refugees fleeing air strikes in the Aleppo region. Meanwhile, Russia accused Turkey of preparing to "invade" Syria.

Mr. Ban's speech was followed by a sombre address from Jordan's King Abdullah II, who said his country – which hosts about 635,000 officially registered Syrian refugees – could take no more. He reminded the assembled leaders that Jordan, which has a total population of 9.5 million, is also still hosting refugees from the Iraq war and the Israel-Palestine conflict.

"Looking today into the eyes of my people and seeing the hardship and distress they carry, I must tell you: we have reached our limits," the King said. "Our country will continue to do what we can to help those in need, but it cannot be at the expense of our own people's welfare."

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Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam struck a similar note, saying his country was experiencing shortages of everything from water to school spaces as a result of the influx of more than one million registered refugees. "Soon, Lebanon will no longer be able to contain an eruption," which will drive more refugees abroad, Mr. Salam warned. "Time is running out."

Those dire warnings were coupled with an appeal from Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, who called on leaders to create a $1.4-billion (U.S.) fund focused on education refugee children. "How can we think of a better future for Syria when 700,000 children are out of school among the refugees?" she asked a news conference.

Mr. Ban said the world needs to keep pace with the growing needs of the millions of Syrians who have been displaced by a civil war that has left more than 250,000 people dead and is now entering its sixth year. The UN has asked for $8-billion to deal with the crisis in 2016. The international community met only 40 per cent of the UN's $8.8-billion appeal last year, leading to reductions in food stipends as well as a chronic shortage of school spaces in the main host countries of Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

"Despite the generosity of some donors, the international community has failed to keep pace with these needs," Mr. Ban told the donors conference, which was held under tight security in the heart of London. "The situation is not sustainable. We cannot go on like this. There is no military solution."

British Prime Minister David Cameron said donor countries would do "everything we can" to meet the aid request. By the end of the one-day meeting, he said $6-billion had been raised toward the 2016 goal, with $5-billion more pledged for later years.

Mr. Cameron promised that the United Kingdom would donate $744-million this year to the Syrian refugee crisis, roughly double its 2015 contribution.

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel – who has seen her support ratings plummet since she declared last fall that Germany would welcome refugees, provoking hundreds of thousands fleeing Syria and other conflicts to make their way towards the European Union – said her country would donate $1.3-billion.

That total included $634-million earmarked to the World Food Program, which the agency said would meet half its annual need for the Syria crisis. Falling WFP food rations was one of the biggest reasons many refugees left temporary residences in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan and tried to reach Europe.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry – in an address full of bitter remarks about the Assad regime's refusal to halt sieges and allow humanitarian access to several rebel-held areas so that the Geneva talks could have a chance to succeed – announced $925-million in new American aid for Syrian refugees.

International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said Canada would not give any new pledges in London, though Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would "in a couple of days" make an announcement encompassing Canada's military, diplomatic and humanitarian strategy for Syria and the region.

Ms. Bibeau called the suspension of the Geneva negotiations "a big disappointment," but she said the London conference sent the message that "we're all working together here."

Not everybody. Neither Russia nor the Syrian government was represented at the Supporting Syria event.

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