By Stella Dawson
WASHINGTON, Sept 16 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The United Nations has sharply reduced its humanitarian and development staff in Syria since last month's chemical weapons attacks, making delivery of assistance to a war-torn people even more challenging, a U.N. official said on Monday.
"Our footprint has been reduced, but we have not shut down," Rebeca Grynspan, U.N. under-secretary general, said in an interview.
The U.N. country team was cut to 65 international staffers by mid September from 136, and the United National Development Programme (UNDP) has three international staffers, the U.N. said.
The United States threatened to punish Syria after a chemical-weapons assault on a rebel-held Damascus suburb on August 21, which Washington said killed 1,400 people, including 400 children. But U.S. President Barack Obama last week put on hold efforts to win Congressional support for military strikes to give diplomacy more time.
U.N. investigators confirmed on Monday that the nerve gas sarin was used in the attack.
Grynspan said that while the United Nations was still operating in Syria, the staff cutbacks had made delivery of aid more of a challenge.
The civil war in Syria has devastated the country and created a massive humanitarian crisis affecting more than half its population. More than six million Syrians have fled in two and half years of conflict and four million more are internally displaced. Syrians continue to leave at the rate of 5,000 a day, straining resources in neighboring countries.
Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt, in that order, have taken in the most refugees but they are running out of funds to provide basic services. In Jordan for example, police are straining to deal with crime and to provide basic security in the Zaatari refugee camp, which has a population of more than 150,000, equal to the size of Jordan's fourth largest city.
Grynspan said that more funding for UNDP programs was critical. UNDP has budgeted $61.4 million for assistance programs in Lebanon and Jordan, and for its Syrian programs, but faces a $44.1 million shortfall.
The U.N. announced last week it would release $50 million from its emergency reserves for regional relief efforts.
UNDP programs in Syria undertake rubble removal and provide emergency job help and infrastructure to support humanitarian relief.
Grynspan said investing in the countries receiving refugees was important to prevent violence and upheaval from spreading.
"We have learned that is important to prevent conflict and ensure that the host community does not turn hostile," she said.
(Reporting By Stella Dawson; Editing by David Brunnstrom)