Kuwait set to host second Syrian aid conference

UN chief asks Kuwait to host conference as refugee crisis grows and chemical weapons inspectors begin daunting task of destroying the regime's stockpiles. Elizabeth Dickinson reports

Syrian children play in front of their tent at Zaatari Syrian refugee camp in Mafraq, Jordan. Between January and October, the number of Syrian refugees quadrupled to more than 2 million. Jamal Nasrallah / EPA
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The United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon has asked Kuwait to host a second conference to raise money for relief work in Syria, where a deeping humanitarian crisis prompted the Security Council to call for unhindered access to affected civilians.

The renewed humanitarian push came as international inspectors began work on Wednesday to destroy Syria's chemical weapons by mid-2014 to comply with a UN Security Council resolution passed on Friday.

Unlike that resolution, the council’s statement on Wednesday was not legally binding, but marks the second time in a week that all 15 members have acted together to address problems caused by Syria’s civil war.

It called for the Syrian government to facilitate “safe and unhindered humanitarian access to people in need through the most effective ways, including across conflict lines and, where appropriate, across borders from neighboring countries”.

The UN says it needs US$3.52 billion (Dh12.92bn) for its programmes in Syria and neighbouring countries this year, its largest ever appeal, but has received less than half of those funds.

Mr Ban, the UN secretary general, called Kuwait’s emir, Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Jaber Al Sabah, at his New York residence late on Tuesday and “expressed hopes ... for Kuwait to host the second donors’ conference to support the humanitarian situation in Syria”, Kuwait’s state news agency reported yesterday.

In January, Kuwait hosted the first donor conference for Syria, which attracted enormous aid pledges from the region, including $300 million each from the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

Kuwait is currently the third-largest humanitarian donor to the Syrian crisis, after the United States and the European Union, having contributed $324,057,835 this year, according to UN tallies.

At the time of the first conference, the UN said it needed $1.5bn to fund humanitarian operations in the first half of the year.

But the crisis has spiralled in recent months. Between January and October, the number of Syrian refugees quadrupled to more than 2 million. More than 4.25 million are displaced within Syria, where access to food, health care and education are also increasingly limited. Humanitarian operations have struggled to reach many areas because of fighting between government and rebel forces.

The UN refugee agency “and its partners are doing everything possible to respond, but we are stretched to the limits” Antonio Guterres, the UN high commissioner for refugees, said on Tuesday.

Mr Guterres also said his organisation was beginning to shift to a long-term strategy, indicating that refugees will likely be displaced for months if not years to come.

Yesterday, 17 countries including the United States, France and Australia agreed to receive small quotas of refugees, diminishing slightly the burden on Syria’s neighbours. Most of Syria’s refugees have crowded into Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon, as well as Iraq and Egypt.

“So far, UNHCR has 17 countries participating in the Syria resettlement/Humanitarian Admission Programme effort,” said Peter Kessler, the agency’s regional spokesman.

He said the countries were offering a total of 10,000 places, with some programmes aimed mainly at the 2014 calendar year.

The agency will assess refugees for relocation to the 17 host countries, giving priority to the most vulnerable, Mr Kessler said.

In Damascus, the international inspectors, who arrived in the Syrian capital on Tuesday, left their hotel on Wednesday to begin their work, on the tightest deadline placed before the experts from from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

Agreement on a plan to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons was reached after Barack Obama, the US president, asked Congress to approve air strikes to punish the Syrian government over an August 21 gas attack the United States says killed more than 1,400 people.

Global powers were “on the right track” with the plan and could avert military intervention in the conflict if they work together, Vladimir Putin, the Russian president and one of the Syrian regime’s strongest backers, said on Wednesday.

“I believe that if we continue to act in such a coordinated way, it will not be necessary to use force and increase the number of people wounded and killed in the long-suffering land of Syria,” Mr Putin said.

The OPCW’s mission in Syria is its firs in the country, and the first to take place in a war zone.

Fighting will be just one of the enormous challenges facing the inspectors – an advance team of 19 from the Netherlands-based chemical weapons watchdog and 14 UN staff members – face as they begin their work.

Within a week, a second group of inspectors is scheduled to join them to form teams that will fan out to separate locations.

They have about nine months to complete their mission of finding, dismantling and eliminating the estimated 1,000-tonne chemical arsenal of Bashar Al Assad, the president.

Experts at The Hague, where the OPCW is based, said the inspectors’ priority is to reach the first milestone of helping Syria scrap its ability to manufacture chemical weapons by a November 1 deadline, using every means possible.

Some of the inspectors will be double-checking Syria’s initial disclosure of what weapons and chemical precursors it has and where they are located. Others will begin planning the logistics for visits to every site where chemicals or weapons are reported to be stored.

They are empowered to conduct surprise visits to sites they suspect may contain undeclared weapons, and the UN resolution says they must be granted unfettered access.

* With additional reporting from the Associated Press and Agence France-Presse