Aid organizations appealed on Tuesday for funds to help Syria recover from an eight-year war that has driven almost six million people out of the country, as donors from nearly 85 countries readied for a pledging conference in Brussels that starts Thursday.
Agencies, non-governmental organizations, and think tanks say the conflict, which has killed more than 400,000 people and sparked a refugee exodus that destabilized Syria's neighbors and hit Europe, is far from over.
Around 80 percent of people inside the country live in extreme poverty and refugees are reluctant to return, fearing violence, conscription or prison.
According to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, some 100,000 people have been displaced since the last wave of violence began in mid-February, including tens of thousands from Khan Sheikhoun in northwest Syria, which has been repeatedly hit by government forces from the air and ground in recent weeks.
It estimated that some 140 people, including 69 civilians, were killed over three weeks.
As the conflict enters its ninth year, about 11.7 million Syrians still depend on aid, more than six million have been displaced inside Syria and some two million children are out of school.
But donor fatigue is growing: Of around 3.5 billion euros (3.9 billion US dollars) pledged last year, only around two thirds were funded.
Beyond providing aid, the European Union — the world's biggest donor and host of Thursday's conference — refuses to help rebuild the country until a political settlement has been reached.
The EU is hoping that the meeting can give impetus to stalled peace moves under UN auspices, on top of gathering humanitarian aid for Syria and for neighbors hosting refugees like Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.
But some NGOs believe that its stance over rebuilding can be a serious obstacle to genuine aid efforts.
"We need to hold the EU accountable to its position, that there should be no reconstruction, whether you want to call it reconstruction, early recovery or new things like humanitarian infrastructure or all these nice and sexy words we come up with to justify our actions, we need to be accountable to our ethical position, that unless the war is over and there is a political solution, we may be contributing to an unsustainable peace in Syria", said Dr. Rouba Mhaissen, founder and director of Sawa for Development and Aid.
Jordan CEO of Save the Children Rania Malki stressed that securing money for "the recovery of children, who have suffered in this conflict" was crucial.
Geert Cappelaere, UNICEF Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa, echoed her words by emphasizing that "the situation of Syrian children remains incredibly dire".
"Every single day in 2018, at least three children got killed in this war," he added.
Absent from the donor conference are Syrians themselves.
No government or opposition representatives have been invited, but civil society group representatives in Brussels for the occasion are concerned that donor countries want to pressure Syrian refugees to return, despite the dangers and uncertainties they could face.