The European Union’s top diplomat warned Tuesday that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is making the plight of poverty-stricken Syrians far worse and urged donors to dig deep to help the Middle East country wracked by more than a decade of civil war.
Opening a donor event in Brussels, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said that 60 percent of Syria’s population “suffer food insecurity, and barely know where the next meal is going to come from”.
“The Russian war will increase food and energy prices and the situation in Syria will become worse,” he said.
Borrell said the 27-nation bloc would provide an additional 1 billion euros ($1.1bn) for Syria this year, bringing the annual total to 1.5 billion euros ($1.6bn). He said the EU would also provide 1.56 billion euros ($1.64bn) next year.
“Our strong political commitment to Syria must be backed by equally strong financial commitments,” Borrell said. He vowed that the EU would maintain sanctions against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government, and stressed that there can be no normalised relations until Syrian refugees are “safe to go back home”.
Food prices around the world were already rising, but the war in Ukraine – a major wheat supplier – has made things worse. The impact is adding to the plight of millions of Syrians driven from their homes by the country’s 11-year war. Many rely on international aid to survive.
The war in Ukraine has also created a whole new group of refugees. European nations and the US have rushed to help more than 5.5 million Ukrainians who have fled to neighbouring countries, as well as more than 7 million displaced within Ukraine’s borders.
Half of Syria’s prewar population of 23 million people was displaced by the conflict.
Aid agencies are hoping to draw some of the world’s attention back to Syria at Tuesday’s conference, hosted by the EU. The funding also goes towards aid for the 5.7 million Syrian refugees living in neighbouring countries, particularly Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.
Non-EU country Norway said Monday that it would provide 1.5 billion kroner ($150m) in 2021 to assist people in Syria and neighbouring countries.
Last year, the EU, the United States and other nations pledged $6.4bn to help Syrians and neighbouring countries hosting refugees. But that fell well short of the $10bn that the United Nations had sought.
Imogen Sudbery, from the International Rescue Committee aid group, urged the EU to do more, noting that “even if donors pledge the same as previous years, they will not fill this alarming and rapidly-increasing funding gap”.
Syria’s foreign ministry criticised the Brussels event, saying neither the Syrian government nor its ally Russia are taking part in it. It said the conference is being organised by countries that are imposing sanctions on the “Syrian people” and blocking reconstruction.
“Countries organising or participating in this conference occupy or support the occupation of part of the Syrian territories and loot the resources of the Syrian people,” the ministry said. The term “occupation” was a reference to hundreds of US troops present in oil-rich eastern parts of Syria.
Borrell said that Russia was not invited due to the war in Ukraine.
“We are inviting those partners who have a genuine, a real interest to contribute to peace in the world,” he said. The UN decided not to co-host this year’s conference because the EU refused to invite Russia.