A young Syrian girl is among thousands of child refugees living in camps in Lebanon / © AFP
International donors on Thursday pledged nearly $7 billion in aid for 2019 for civilians caught up in Syria's bloody civil war but the total fell short of what the UN says is needed.
EU Humanitarian Commissioner Christos Stylianides announced the total at the end of a three-day conference of 80 countries and organisations in Brussels, on the eve of the eighth anniversary of the start of the conflict.
The European Union led the pledges with two billion euros, but the conference failed to drum up the $9 billion the United Nations said was needed to help the millions of Syrians forced to flee the country as well as those facing a humanitarian crisis at home.
European powers reiterated that progress on a UN led peace process must come before they will release funds to rebuild Syria -- though they have dropped their insistence that President Bashar al-Assad must go.
Despite the shortfall, UN aid chief Mark Lowcock said he was "very pleased with the outcome" but stressed that only a political solution could end the misery endured by Syrians as a result of the war.
Before the conference the UN estimated that $5.5 billion (4.4 billion euros) was needed to help the approximately 5.6 million Syrians forced to flee their country, mostly to Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan.
A further $3.3 billion is needed for populations inside Syria facing a humanitarian situation, described by the Medecins du Monde aid agency as "unsustainable".
The UN describes the crisis in Syria as "staggering", with 11.7 million people in need of some form of humanitarian aid, 6.2 million people internally displaced and 83 percent of Syrians living below the poverty line.
Germany pledged 1.44 billion euros, Washington almost $400 million and Britain some £400 million (464 million euros).
"We hope to reach 11.7 million Syrians inside the country with food assistance and millions more with health and water services. To know that there will be funding for that, at this stage of the year, is very important," Lowcock said.
The conference raised pledges of a further $2.4 billion for humanitarian, resilience and development activities for the Syria crisis response in 2020 and beyond, the UN aid agency OCHA said.
But past commitments have not been followed up on -- the UN says only 65 percent of the $3.4 billion pledged in 2018 for work inside Syria was received.
- Fears for diverting of aid -
Syria's war has killed more than 360,000 people and displaced millions since the conflict began with the repression of anti-government protests in 2011.
The regime has made a military comeback with Russian military support since 2015, and now holds almost two-thirds of Syria.
There are now growing concerns about the Assad regime diverting aid or interfering with its distribution. As more and more territory has returned to government control, increasingly aid has had to be supplied through Damascus, European officials say, making it vulnerable to government interference.
EU diplomatic chief Federica Mogherini said reconstruction funds from the bloc would only come "when a political process will be fully under way under UN auspices in Geneva".
Repeated rounds of UN led peace talks in Geneva have led nowhere and have gradually been eclipsed by the so-called Astana process, brokered by Russia, Iran and Turkey.
Belgian foreign minister Didier Reynders stressed the need for the Syrian government to commit to the Geneva process.
"We hope that in the coming months we can move the political situation. That would allow the start of reconstruction and the return of refugees," he said.