BEIRUT, Lebanon — With the Syrian humanitarian crisis worsening amid mounting fears of starvation and illness, the United Nations on Monday launched a drive for about $6.5 billion in aid, described as the largest amount ever sought for a single emergency.
Speaking in Geneva, U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos, who recently returned from a trip to Syria and Lebanon, cited the plight of "millions of Syrians who are displaced and in urgent need of food, shelter and health care both inside the country and across the region."
Aid agencies are seeking donations from governments, private organizations and individuals.
Last week saw the region's first severe storm of the season, bringing snow and subfreezing temperatures and dramatizing the plight of multitudes living in precarious circumstances as the Syrian conflict enters its third winter.
If the war continues, the number of Syrian refugees is expected to almost double during 2014, to more than 4 million, according to U.N. estimates. Most refugees have resettled in neighboring nations, including Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq, taxing resources and aggravating social and political tensions.
Antonio Guterres, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, described the conflict as one that is "probably the most dangerous for global peace and security since World War II."
Inside Syria, the United Nations says more than 9 million people — more than a third of the population — are in need of assistance, including many forced from their homes by clashes, bombardments and threats.
The 2 1/2-year-old conflict has caused a near-collapse of many basic services inside Syria, especially in contested zones and areas controlled by antigovernment rebels. Relief groups say aid is often held up at Syria's borders or never reaches needy people living in battle zones and besieged communities.
Syria recently experienced its first cases of polio since 1999, an alarming outbreak that has spurred a massive campaign to vaccinate more than 23 million children regionwide against the crippling disease.
Basic medical items such as antibiotics, painkillers and gauze are in short supply in many areas, said the International Rescue Committee, a New York-based aid group. In addition, the group said Syria is now confronting a food crisis, with the cost of staples such as bread skyrocketing and limited access to clean water in many areas.
"Starvation is now threatening large parts of the Syrian population," the group's president, David Miliband, said in a statement. "With polio on the loose and (freezing) weather already here, the people of Syria now face months of more death and despair. We are witnessing a humanitarian catastrophe that is receiving far too little attention and funding around the world."