$1.5bn international aid pledged to Syria


Arab Gulf states and other countries pledged more than $1.5 billion in urgent humanitarian aid to Syria yesterday as a key opposition leader made a surprise offer of holding direct talks with the regime of president Bashar al-Assad.

The funds were raised at a conference in Kuwait after Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, warned of a “catastrophic” situation. “I appeal to all sides and particularly the Syrian government, to stop the killing,” he said.

On Tuesday, the UN special envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, told the security council the 22-month conflict had reached “unprecedented levels of horror”.

In another potentially significant development, Moaz al-Khatib, head of Syria’s main opposition alliance the National Coalition, said he could hold direct talks with “representatives of the Syrian regime” in Cairo, Tunis or Istanbul.

Divisive move

Syrian opposition supporters were quickly divided about the sudden move. Some said it risked losing the support of armed rebel groups. Others said it might appeal to Russia, Assad’s chief ally, which backs talks between the regime and the opposition.

The Syrian National Council, part of the opposition coalition, reacted angrily, saying it rejected “any settlement with the Syrian regime or negotiation with it”. Al-Khatib retorted swiftly: “We don’t negotiate on the regime’s survival but on its departure at the least possible cost in blood and destruction.”

Still, his demands – the release of 160,000 people he said were being held in Syrian prisons and the resumption of the issuing of passports by Syrian embassies – seemed unlikely to be acceptable to Assad.

The president called three weeks ago for talks but insisted there would be no dialogue with opponents he called “terrorists” who had “betrayed” Syria.

The pledges in Kuwait exceeded the UN’s $1.5 billion target. Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia – a backer of the Syrian opposition – each promised $300 million. Other donors included the UK, Bahrain, Germany and a Kuwaiti-led NGO coalition. The US announced an extra $155 million.

About $1 billion is earmarked for neighbouring countries hosting refugees and $500 million for humanitarian aid to Syrians displaced internally. King Abdullah of Jordan said Syrians had taken refuge in his country in their hundreds of thousands.

“We have reached the end of the line; we have exhausted our resources,” he said.

(Guardian service)