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On Syrian uprising anniversary, $7bn raised in Brussels falls short of UN target

UN officials say they are 'pleased with the outcome' but stress only a political solution can end the war
A protest in the Syrian city of Binnish in Idlib on Friday to mark the 8th anniversary of the beginning of the uprisings (MEE/Harun al-Aswad)

International donors at a Belgian conference pledged $7bn to help Syrian refugees, falling short of what the UN said it needed on the eve of the eighth anniversary of the country's uprising.

More than 370,000 people, including 112,000 civilians, have been killed in the conflict, according to figures release by the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights on Friday, a total that is potentially an underestimate given the tens of thousands of Syrians who have disappeared.

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More than 5.6 million have fled the country and 6.6 million are displaced, according to the latest UN figures.

EU Humanitarian Commissioner Christos Stylianides announced the total on Thursday at the end of the three-day conference of 80 countries and organisations, the third of its kind in recent years.

The UN had said it needed $8.8bn in 2019 to help millions of Syrians forced to flee the country and also those facing a humanitarian crisis at home.

The European Union led pledges with $2.26bn which included $1.5bn previously agreed as part of European efforts to reduce the Syrian refugee influx through Turkey.

European powers reiterated that progress on a UN-led peace process must come before they will release funds to rebuild Syria, though they have dropped their insistence that President Bashar al-Assad must go.

The United States pledged more than $397m, less than the $697m offered in 2017, according to US government data.

Despite the shortfall, the total surpassed $6bn pledged by Western donors in 2017 and $4.4bn given in 2018 which reached $6bn by the end of the year.

UN aid chief Mark Lowcock said he was "very pleased with the outcome" but stressed that only a political solution could end the misery endured by Syrians as a result of the war.

He also expressed his deep concern about the deteriorating situation in the opposition-held governorate of Idlib in the north-west of Syria, where more than 90 civilians were killed last month, half of them children.

"A large-scale military assault on Idlib would create the worst humanitarian catastrophe the world has seen in the 21st century," he told an audience in Brussels on Thursday.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said the needs of Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries and host communities are "becoming more, not less severe", even as some Syrians are starting to return home.

He called for “more predictable investments” to alleviate the strain on Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq where he said governments are struggling to convince their citizens to host large numbers of refugees.