Twenty-two years ago I was a junior diplomat in Syria. I visited the Umayyad Mosque, explored the ancient city of Palmyra, travelled to the Golan Heights and bought carpets in the bazaars of Damascus' old town. Although Hafez Assad's police state was ubiquitous I got to meet Syrians and understand something of their country and culture: creative, intelligent, diverse and proud of their history.
I've travelled widely since but not returned to Syria. I've watched with increasing horror at what has happened over the past five years. A quarter of a million people have been killed to date. Four million refugees now live in Jordan, Syria and the wider region. Thirteen million people within Syria require humanitarian assistance and millions more have been displaced at the brutal mercy of Bashar Assad, Daesh or other extremist groups.
This week, the UK will co-host a conference, "Supporting Syria and the region 2016," with Germany, Kuwait, Norway and the United Nations. It will take an ambitious new approach to provide longer term support for refugees: through concrete action on livelihoods and jobs, and improved access to education -- giving refugees the skills they need for the future and the best chance of a successful return home.
However the conference alone cannot solve the complex problems facing Syria. A political solution remains necessary to end the conflict.
The London conference will address the huge humanitarian challenges faced by the people of Syria, and raise significant new funding to meet the immediate and longer-term needs of those affected. The 2016 UN coordinated appeals for the Syria crisis call for US$7.7 billion. An additional US$1.2 billion in funding is required by affected regional governments hosting refugees.
The conference will bring together global leaders, NGOs, the private sector and civil society to address the most pressing concerns raised by the crisis. As well as raising new funding to meet immediate and longer-term needs, it will maintain pressure on all parties to the conflict to protect civilians and respect International Humanitarian Law. And it will identify ways to create jobs and provide education, offering all those who have been forced to flee their homes a greater hope for the future. It will also recognize the generosity shown by neighbouring countries such as Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon has undoubtedly saved many lives and allowed people to stay close to home, avoiding perilous journeys towards Europe.
However the conference alone cannot solve the complex problems facing Syria. A political solution remains necessary to end the conflict. That means working with the international community to bring about an end to the brutal conflict in the country.
The UK's strategy contains three strands, covering the political, military and humanitarian dimensions. Politically, the UK is deeply involved in the International Syria Support Group working towards a political transition to a peaceful future. Militarily, the UK contributes to the campaign in the region to defeat Daesh. And as the second largest bilateral donor after the US, pledging over £1.1 billion so far to Syria and the region to provide support such as food, shelter, medical care and clean drinking water, for hundreds of thousands of people affected by the conflict, our humanitarian efforts have also been extensive.
Canada also has an important role. My family has joined many Canadians in preparing packs to welcome Syrians to Canada. My son, Michael's welcome letter counsels that "It can get a little bit cold here, so try and keep bundled up and warm, especially in winter." Canadians from the Maritimes to Vancouver are welcoming Syrian refugees with open hearts, providing a role model to other Western countries. Canada is also one of the top donors to those states in the region who are sheltering Syria refugees, but the overall international effort is still not enough. We must do more.
2016 is a critical year for Syria, 15 March will mark the fifth anniversary of the Syrian civil war. It is in all our interests, but especially the people of Syria, that 2016 is the year when we see a turning-point in this crisis. The UK will continue to play a leading role in international efforts to end the suffering of Syrians.
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