BEIRUT - The exodus of millions of people from Syria in one of the largest refugee flights in decades is pushing neighboring countries to a breaking point, and thousands of lives are threatened with the onset of a bitter winter.
The crisis prompted a record appeal by the United Nations on Monday for $6.5 billion to help displaced Syrians and their host countries, with hundreds of thousands more refugees expected as the civil war rages.
With less than a month to go before internationally brokered peace talks by Syria's warring sides are to begin, the U.N. chief demanded a cease-fire for the discussions to have any chance in succeeding.
"We must have cessation of hostilities before we begin political dialogue on Syria in Geneva," Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters in New York.
But if anything, the violence in Syria, which activists say has claimed more than 120,000 lives, appears to be spiraling. Opposition groups said at least 76 people were killed in a series of air strikes targeting the northern city of Aleppo on Sunday. They said government aircraft took to the skies again Monday, hitting opposition-held areas in the north and south.
Amateur videos posted online showed the aftermath of Sunday's air strikes: leveled buildings, rubble-strewn streets, and the smoldering wreckage of vehicles. The images corresponded to Associated Press reporting on the strikes.
The conflict in Syria, now in its third year, has defied all attempts at peace.
In addition to the staggering death toll, millions of people have been displaced from their homes, most now scattered in refugee camps and informal settlements across Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. A biting cold spell marking the beginning of winter has added another layer of misery to their grim existence.
The situation in Syria has "deteriorated beyond all imagination," Ban said.
In Geneva, the U.N. appealed to donors for $6.5 billion to help support the nearly nine million uprooted Syrians, the largest-ever appeal for a single crisis.
Antonio Guterres, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, said the Syrian civil war has helped push the number of people worldwide who fled conflict in their homelands to more than two million this year alone - the highest since 1994, when people fled genocide in Rwanda and bloodshed in the former Yugoslavia.
He described the nearly three-year conflict in Syria as a "mega-crisis" with regional dimensions, one that is "probably the most dangerous for global peace and security since World War II."
Experts say what makes the Syrian conflict particularly challenging is the consistent, steady flow of refugees, overwhelming aid efforts and making it impossible to predict long-term needs.
Peter Kessler, UNHCR senior regional spokesman, said at least 120,000 Syrians seek shelter in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq every month.
"The needs are enormous and the host countries cannot meet them on their own. They need help," Kessler told the AP by phone from the Lebanese border town of Arsal, where the population has skyrocketed.