Who should get the aid?
"Nearly 10 million people - half the Syrian population - are on the run," says Syria expert Elias Perabo. "On top of that there's the hunger, which is something there has never been before in Syria." People are dying of hunger every day, he adds, especially near Damascus.
Perabo is a Berlin-based political scientist who has helped found a Syria network called Adopt a Revolution. He is continually in touch with people in and around Damascus, and he says the situation is getting worse by the day.
"The government delivers supplies to the regions it controls," he says. "But it also uses the [international] food aid to do so." The parts of town which are controlled by the rebels are cut off: "It's not just that food aid doesn't get through, no food gets through at all. They're being starved out."
The UN's emergency food coordinator Valerie Amos doesn't believe that the refugee numbers are as high as 10 million, but she still quotes a figure of seven million dependent on humanitarian aid.
The UN estimates it needs about $6.5 billion to supply them with their basic needs.
At the closing of the donors' conference in Kuwait on Wednesday (15.01.2014), UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced pledges worth more than $2.4 billion.
First money, then peace talks
On January 22, after repeated postponements, the international Syria peace conference is finally due to start in the Swiss city of Montreux. That gives the donors' conference a political significance as well as a humanitarian purpose.
So far, things are not looking good for the peace conference, which has been arranged by the Friends of Syria - a loose group of Western and Arab countries, as well as Turkey. That's mainly because the largest Syrian opposition group, the National Coalition, has been hesitant about taking part. It wants above all to overthrow the Syrian government, and it fears that the West will force it towards a compromise with President Bashar al-Assad.
But even if the Friends of Syria succeed in getting the opposition to take part in the conference, few people believe in the chances of success.
"It doesn't look as if there will be any progress," says Petra Becker of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), "and there's no reason to expect it." Assad feels too sure of victory, she argues, while the opposition's position is too rigid.
The peace conference could, however, produce a few concessions to make it easier for international aid organizations to reach those who need help. That's why Perabo thinks it's very important that the donor's conference is successful: "It would be a signal to the peace conference that the West is prepared to take responsibility, and it would be a signal to the opposition, even if only to get them to take part."
From struggle for liberation to brutal war
But many of the donor countries are skeptical. Most governments have only given the aid organizations part of the relatively modest amounts they promised at the last donors' conference a year ago. Only two-thirds of the promised 1.15 billion euros has been distributed.
That can have domestic reasons: foreign ministers are often inclined to promise more than their finance ministers are prepared to spend. But, in the case of Syria, there's a certain disillusion - as Perabo has noticed as he tries to gather donations for his own Adopt a Revolution network. "The way this war has developed from an uprising for freedom into a brutal struggle in which Islamists are taking an increasing role has frightened off many in the West," he says.
The donors have also been less willing to give as a result of the experience of recent months, when aid has increasingly been failing to reach those who need it most. The longer the fighting continues, the harder it is to break through the front lines. The International Red Cross has been trying for months to get convoys into areas controlled by the rebels. The government always agrees to let them through, but then its troops block the way.
The big organizations, especially, consider it important to do nothing without the permission of the government. When a few months ago the World Health Organization was asked by the civil administration in northern Syria to deliver vaccines to refugee camps in the so-called liberated zones, the WHO refused: the civil administration had been set up by the opposition, and it was not recognized by the government. There was nothing they could do.
Good intentions, bad results
One reason for this attitude is fear for the safety of local staff, another is the risk that the organizations will be prevented from working in the liberated areas or even thrown out of the country altogether. But this policy is playing into Assad's hands: people get food and medicine wherever his troops are, while there's a humanitarian disaster wherever the rebels are in charge.
According to Becker, the western governments need to be more assertive to ensure that the aid gets to the areas really affected by the conflict. "You can't just work with organizations that are recognized by the regime, you also have to support organizations that work in areas not controlled by the regime," she says. It's often the smaller aid organizations that are prepared to ignore the requirements of the Assad government. The medical charity Médecins sans Frontières, for example, regularly serves the refugee camps in northern Syria from Turkey.
In principle, every government decides for itself which organization it wants to give the money it promises at the donors' conference. But doubts mustn't be an excuse for avoiding responsibility altogether, warns Perabo: "On the one hand, one has to be sure that the aid isn't being instrumentalized, but on the other, one has to do something against hunger and need."