It was the night before the biggest Syrian donors conference of the year, and one of the many primer events around London was taking place. Sitting on a panel with Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom and International Rescue Committee President David Miliband, Norwegian Foreign Minister Borge Brende received a text. His face fell. Crestfallen, he told the room that the Syrian peace talks in Geneva — the third attempt in five years of conflict — had been put on hold. The audience visibly deflated. "Very, very disappointing," Brende said.
As hopes turn away from Geneva, they turn towards London. The Supporting Syria and the Region conference will kick off this morning in the UK capital, with the aim of securing billions of dollars in aid for Syria and its neighbors from countries across the planet. At least 70 world leaders are expected to attend the event, which is being co-hosted by the UK, Germany, Kuwait, Norway and the United Nations.
The total amount of funding requested is $9 billion — made up of a UN-coordinated appeal by aid agencies for $7.73 billion and a $1.23 billion request by governments from countries neighboring Syria. However last year's UN appeal for $2.9 billion only got 43 percent of its goal.
In an attempt to get things moving, the UK and Norway pledged early on Thursday to give an additional $2.9 billion in aid by 2020, soon followed by a $1.23 billion pledge from Germany and a $900 million pledge from the US.
The five-year war has so far killed more than 250,000 people. Some 4 million have fled to neighboring countries or beyond, while 6 million are currently displaced inside Syria.
Juliette Touma, spokesperson for UNICEF Middle East and North Africa region, told VICE News that UNICEF was hoping it was hoping for $1.4 billion allocation of funds from Thursday's conference, which they would use to get all Syrian refugee children back in school by the end of 2016/17, and provide a package of assistance beyond that including health, vaccinations, water sanitation, hygiene, and psychological support.
"Five years after the war began we have an educational crisis in Syria — not just in Syria but in the neighboring countries hosting refugees," she said.
More than 700,000 Syrian children in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt are currently out of education. An estimated 2.1 million inside the country are also not attending school, a population UNICEF describes as a "lost generation."
"The financial situation of [neighboring countries] is not great, and the influx of refugees has added to the worsening situation in these countries," said Touma.
On Tuesday, King Abdullah of Jordan — one of the countries bearing the largest burden of Syrian refugees, who together with Iraqis and Palestinians now make up around 20 percent of the population — said his country was at "boiling point."
"For the first time, we can't do it any more," he said. "Jordanians are suffering from trying to find jobs, the pressure on infrastructure and for the government, it has hurt us when it comes to the educational system, our healthcare. Sooner or later I think the dam is going to burst. The psyche of the Jordanian people, I think it's gotten to boiling point."
Jordan — with a population of 6.5 million — has accepted more than 600,000 Syrian refugees registered with the UN, and says around one million more are also living there.
Shortly after news of the break in peace talks came in on Wednesday evening, IRC president Miliband said that the theme of the Thursday's conference should the "need to end the fiction that the war is about to end soon."
"The only hope is to put the humanitarian need center stage," he said, adding that keeping political and humanitarian tracts separate over the past five years hadn't "borne fruit."
Touma acknowledged that humanitarian aid deals only with the consequences of the war, rather than the causes, but said that for the time being this was necessary. "The conflict has got to come to an end for the sake of Syria's children, for the future and stability of Syria and the region," she said. "There needs to be a political, peaceful solution to this conflict. Until this happens we have a humanitarian obligation at UNICEF and that is to provide children with humanitarian and development assistance that they really need at the moment."
Adding to the debate, Swedish Minister for Foreign Affairs Margot Wallstrom said her country, like many others in Europe, had been overwhelmed by the huge influx of migrants and refugees in the past year, many of whom were Syrian.
Wallstrom — who is operating with a "feminist foreign policy" — also said she wanted to see more women involved in the Syrian peace process, and quipped that the peace talks would not have been postponed had women been in charge. "Are they at the table where peace is negotiated? No, still not as a given thing," she said.
"Ultimately we all know the elephant in the room is resolving the crisis by finding a political solution," Executive Director of the UN Populations Fund Babatunde Osotimehin said.
Staffan de Mistura, the UN's special envoy at the peace talks in Geneva, has said that after a "temporary pause" the peace talks will resume on February 25. This is the third time such negotiations have been attempted in Geneva. However, they seemed destined to fail before they began last week, as the Syrian opposition refused to attend, saying they wanted an end to the bombing of civilians and aid blockades before they would negotiate.
After announcing the break in negotiations in Switzerland, de Mistura said he would travel to London for Thursday's conference.
Meanwhile, the deaths continue. Some 1,382 Syrian civilians were killed in January, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights.
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