UN forum offers new details on depth of Syria disaster

The State Department announced Tuesday that Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to Europe and the Middle East next week, with the Syrian crisis figuring high on his agenda.

Denis Balibouse/Reuters
Valerie Amos, Under-Secretary-General and Emergency Relief Coordinator at the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), arrives with Claus Sorensen, Director-General of the European Commission Directorate-General for Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection (ECHO), for a news conference after the seventh Syrian Humanitarian Forum at the United Nations European headquarters in Geneva Tuesday.

With nearly two years of fighting in Syria claiming more than 70,000 lives, causing almost 900,000 Syrians to flee their country, and displacing more than 2.5 million internally, the United Nations appears to have given up on finding new superlatives to describe the grinding civil war.

On Tuesday the UN’s emergency relief coordinator and under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, Valerie Amos, told an international conference on the Syrian crisis in Geneva that “the situation in Syria is getting worse” as violence continues unabated.

Ms. Amos spoke at the UN’s “Syria humanitarian forum” as reports came out of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and a focal point in the fighting between the government and rebel forces, about the kind of violence that has become daily and mundane: A rocket, possibly a Scud missile, hit a rebel-held Aleppo neighborhood, killing 19 – mostly women and children.

The Geneva meeting was the seventh humanitarian forum designed to update international donors on the crisis in Syria and to solicit donations.

The United States announced an additional $19 million in humanitarian assistance at the conference, which brings to $385 million the total US contribution. Among the US donations, President Obama in late January announced $155 million in aid.

The State Department said Tuesday that Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to Europe and the Middle East next week, with the Syrian crisis figuring high on his agenda.

In addressing the Geneva conference, Amos noted that more than half of Syria’s public hospitals are damaged and lack basic services, while more than 1 in 5 schools has either been destroyed or is serving as a shelter for displaced families. “We are watching a humanitarian tragedy unfold before our eyes,” she said.

With no end to the war in sight, the World Food Program is gearing up to address the needs of 2.5 million Syrians by April – up from 1.75 million today, Amos said. About half of those are living in contested or opposition-controlled areas of the country, she added, which makes them more difficult to reach.

As grim a picture as Amos painted, others suggest Syria’s toll may be even worse.

Last week Secretary Kerry said his Saudi counterpart, Prince Saud al-Faisal, reported to him that Syria’s death toll is closer to 90,000 people.

Kerry plans to address the Syrian crisis on his first trip as secretary of State next week, when he will visit a number of European allies and make stops in Egypt; Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; the United Arab Emirates; and Qatar.

Kerry has said he wants to discuss new proposals for halting Syria’s violence, such as convincing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that he must leave power. As a senator, Kerry expressed support for US participation in arming the rebels, but so far Mr. Obama has closed the door on that option.

Some speculate that the door may be opening a crack, however, and they take Kerry’s travel next week to Saudi Arabia and Qatar – two Gulf states said to be providing arms to the Syrian opposition – as a sign that the US is considering new options.

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