KUWAIT CITY – The United States pledged Wednesday to send an additional $380 million in aid this year to help victims of Syria's brutal civil war, but warned that international efforts to ease their suffering will fail if Syrian President Bashar Assad refuses to let humanitarian assistance get to people who need it.
The U.S. is the largest single international donor to the Syrian crisis. But its new funding commitment, announced by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, is only a fraction of the $6.5 billion the United Nation hopes to raise for aid to Syria in 2014.
Speaking in a conspicuously opulent palace that served as a backdrop to a U.N. donor conference in Kuwait, Kerry called the humanitarian situation in Syria "an outrage -- and it should offend every reasonable conscience."
He urged the forum to help push for a negotiated end to the nearly three-year war -- a goal the West says should also remove Assad from power.
"We are under no illusion that our job, or any of our jobs here, are to just write a check," said Kerry, blaming Assad for starving his people and blocking international aid workers from providing aid in some of Syria's hardest-hit areas. "The international community must use every tool at our disposal to draw the world's attention to these offenses. They are not just offenses against conscience. They also are offenses against the laws of war."
Earlier this week, Kerry met with international allies of the main Western-backed moderate Syrian opposition group to prepare for peace talks next week that would mark the first meeting between it and the Assad government since the war began. However, it's not clear that the group, known as the Syrian National Coalition, will attend the talks, as it has been beset by infighting and accusations by other rebels of lost credibility.
Kerry has said the coalition does support efforts by aid workers into areas that its forces control. And in a meeting with Kerry this week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the Assad government also is willing to let aid flow into its turf -- a pledge that quickly drew skepticism from the U.S.
An estimated 9.3 million people still living in Syria desperately need assistance, according to U.N. estimates. Additionally, the U.S. believes at least 2 million refugees have fled to other counties to escape the violence that has killed more than 100,000 people.
Heavy fighting and extremist groups who oppose Assad also have prevented U.N. and other international aid workers from distributing the aid.
Since the war began, the U.S. has donated a total $1.7 billion in humanitarian aid. The State Department said half of the new pledge -- $177 million -- will go to U.N. programs for victims still in Syria, much of it targeted for children who need health care, education and emotional counseling.
The rest is for neighboring nations that have taken in refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Syria. And the U.S. will provide an extra $2.5 million for U.N. programs assisting Syrian refugees in Europe, North Africa and Persian Gulf states.
"The fighting has set Syria back by years, even decades," U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said at the start of the fundraising forum, for the second time in as many years in Kuwait. The Gulf state opened the conference by pledging $500 million in aid this year.
"I count on you to show the Syrian people the world is here to help," Ban said.