Syrian Civil War Overwhelms Aid Groups

Secretary of State John Kerry is attending a donors conference in Kuwait to try to raise money for the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria. Millions of people have been forced from their homes and the U.N. has struggled to gain access to many parts of the country.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

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Diplomats from around the world are trying to raise $6 billion for Syria. In particular, the money is for Syrian refugees.

MONTAGNE: In a country that's really not so populous, millions of people have had to flee their homes, and many have had to flee the country. Startlingly few of those refugees have found shelter in the United States.

INSKEEP: We start with the diplomatic meeting in Kuwait to raise money. Secretary of State John Kerry is adding to the aid the United States has already offered, and he says he is hoping for ceasefire agreements in order to get help to those who are trapped.

NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: A former U.S. diplomat who worked on Syria for the Obama administration understands there are no magic solutions to the conflict in Syria and no limit to its complexity. But Fred Hof - now with the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East - says one issue should be at the top of the agenda.

FRED HOF: The entirety of the American diplomatic effort needs to be focused on what has become, easily, the most catastrophic humanitarian disaster of the 21st century.

KELEMEN: Hof says even that word catastrophe doesn't do justice to the conflict in Syria.

HOF: You're seeing genocidal effects being produced on the ground, this terrible daily bombing, strafing, shelling by the Assad regime of populated areas - densely populated areas - in the hope that they might catch a few rebel fighters. This is what is driving this humanitarian catastrophe, and the international community just hasn't come up with an answer to it yet.

KELEMEN: The U.N. stopped even counting the dead. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon says U.N. human rights investigators don't have access to reliable statistics.

SECRETARY GENERAL BAN KI-MOON: We believe that well over 100,000 people have been killed, and hundreds of thousands people have been wounded.

KELEMEN: Activists now put the death toll at over 130,000. The war has also uprooted nine million people and counting, says Jan Egeland, a former U.N. aid coordinator who now runs the Norwegian Refugee Council.

JAN EGELAND: The humanitarian challenge that is posed to the world by Syria is much bigger than anyone seemed to be able to recognize. We haven't been in this kind of a situation since the Balkans and the Central African region was in flames.

KELEMEN: And the refugee crisis is putting enormous strains on Syria's neighbors.

EGELAND: Little Lebanon taking now a more than a million refugees. It's a country kneeling under the pressure. Jordan has taken more than half a million. They don't even have enough water resources for the existing poor population.

KELEMEN: While these are all issues being discussed here in Kuwait, Egeland says the world is responding too late, with too little.

EGELAND: Where are the big fundraising campaigns? Where is the outrage around the globe of what is happening with this hemorrhage of human lives inside Syria?

KELEMEN: The U.S. has been a major donor. But before coming to Kuwait, Secretary of State Kerry made clear the world can't just endlessly raise money to help more and more Syrians in need.

SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: It's one of the largest refugee, displaced person catastrophes on the face of this planet today, and it needs to stop. And we are not looking for a policy of simply increased assistance to refugees. We're looking for a policy that saves Syria and provides them an ability to go home and rebuild their lives. And that is our goal.

KELEMEN: The goal of a peace conference set to begin January 22nd in Switzerland. Kerry says those talks could last a while. In the meantime, he and his Russian counterpart, who have been pushing for this conference, hope to get Syria's warring factions to agree to humanitarian ceasefires, to at least get some aid to Syrians facing another cold winter and another year of war.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Kuwait City.

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