06/19/2013 04:47 EDT | Updated 08/19/2013 05:12 EDT

UNICEF Canada set to launch special Syria appeal amid debate over arming rebels

OTTAWA - The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) is about to launch a 48-hour emergency appeal for Syria.

The goal is to help the four million children affected by the two-year-old civil war that the UN says has killed 93,000 people.

The agency will start a special appeal to Canadians on Thursday asking for donations at www.unicef.ca to raise funds for immunizations, clean drinking water, education and psycho-social support to help children through the emotional trauma of the crisis.

The emergency fundraiser follows an unprecedented $4-billion appeal for Syria by the UN earlier this month, the largest in its history.

And it comes after this week's G8 leaders' summit, which affirmed the need for peace talks but remained divided on the issue of whether or not to arm rebel groups — a measure Canada opposes for fear of aiding Islamic militants in their ranks.

The international angst over whether Syria's rebels ought to be armed is diverting attention from the worsening humanitarian crisis, especially the damage being done to children, said UNICEF Canada president David Morley.

Morley said Western countries are too preoccupied with the politics of the war, particularly the issue of whether Syria's opposition is too divided to be trusted with heavy arms.

"It's as though we need to say, some of these people are bad guys and others aren't," he said Wednesday from northern Iraq, where 150,000 Syrians, including 60,000 children, have fled to bursting camps.

"For us, none of these children are our enemies. None of these children are bad guys — they're victims of the war."

The vast majority of those uprooted, Morley said, don't care about politics; they just want to go home one day.

Another veteran Canadian aid worker, Dave Toycen, president of World Vision Canada, echoed that view from Lebanon, another country bearing the burden of the continuing influx of fleeing Syrians.

"I feel strongly the refugees are the collateral that pays the price for the violence that goes on," Toycen said in an interview from Beirut.

"We just have to keep reminding ourselves, reminding the public, that we're talking about children, mothers, who have gone through horrendous nightmares, violence, relatives killed, traumatized kids."

Robert Fox, executive director of Oxfam Canada, said the preoccupation with whether or not to arm the rebels has diverted attention from humanitarian needs.

"There's no question that if there's money for arms there should be more money for water, for health care, for education, for protection," he said.

Fox said a negotiated political solution is needed, not more arms flowing into Syria.

"We don't have any confidence that increasing arms will level the playing field," he said. "We don't have confidence that those receiving arms will use them in a way that actually protects civilians and respects human rights."

The United States has said it would supply weapons and ammunition to the Syrian opposition after it found proof the regime of President Bashar Assad attacked its foes with chemical weapons.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said Canada has no plan to send arms and will continue to focus on humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees.

Rosemary McCarney, president of Plan Canada, applauded the government's decision to steer clear of arming the rebels and focusing instead on humanitarian aid.

"The Canadian focus on the humanitarian side of it is a good one. If we can keep our eyes and focus on the humanitarian actors, on the victims of this political conflict, we're not going to misstep at all."