UN agencies issue rare joint appeal for action to end bloodshed in Syria

UN says at least 70,000 people have been killed since start of conflict

After more than two years of bloodshed in Syria the heads of five UN agencies called on the international community to make a meaningful contribution to end the civil war, which has already claimed the lives of more than 70,000 people.

In what they described as an “unprecedented joint appeal” the heads of the five humanitarian groups – Unicef, WFP, UNHCR, WHO and UNOCHA – called for greater urgency among government, whose collective influence could “find a potential solution to the crisis”.

Since the start of the fighting – the corollary of a brutal crackdown by those loyal to President Bashar al-Assad against those calling for his ouster – the international community has been plagued by squabbling over how to bring the crisis to an end. Western governments, who have slowly and incrementally provided funding and equipment to rebel group, have blamed Russia for prolonging the crisis by blocking various moves to punish Assad at the UN Security Council. Moscow has argued for a negotiated settlement.

“We, leaders of UN agencies charged with dealing with the human costs of this tragedy, appeal to political leaders involved to meet their responsibility to the people of Syria and to the future of the region,” the joint statement said.

“We ask that they use their collective influence to insist on a political solution to this horrendous crisis before hundreds of thousands more people lose their homes and lives and futures—in a region that is already at the tipping point... In the name of all those who have so suffered, and the many more whose futures hang in the balance: Enough! Summon and use your influence, now, to save the Syrian people and save the region from disaster.”

They also warn that due to insufficient funds they are “precariously close, perhaps within weeks, to suspending some humanitarian support”.

Some international leaders have acknowledged that the situation in Syria is getting desperate and that more could be done to prevent the humanitarian crisis. Speaking at the recent G8 meeting in London, the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, said: “This is turning into the greatest humanitarian catastrophe of the 21st century so far and we cannot watch this happen.”

On the ground in the war-torn country, the situation appears to be little different. At least 20 people were killed on Monday after air raids targeted opposition strongholds in the capital, Damascus. In recent months rebel groups have launched attacks from their bases in suburb of Douma with some reports suggesting that the government bombardment of the area in recent days has been the heaviest since fighting first broke out in March 2011.

In a surprise move, however, a number of prisoners in Syrian jails who had previously been labelled “terrorists” for their role in supporting the rebels had their sentences slashed by as much as three-quarters yesterday. The presidential decree came a day before Syria’s Independence, or Evacuation, Day and follows similar moves at various times since the start of the uprising.

Rebel groups dismissed the move as a political gesture.