UNITED NATIONS - International donors Tuesday pledged $3.8 billion at a UN-backed conference held in Kuwait to help millions of children, women and men affected by the devastating conflict in Syria, now in its fifth year.

“Today, the international community has come together in solidarity with the people of Syria and neighbouring countries bearing the heavy burden of hosting millions of Syrian refugees,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who chaired the gathering, to a press briefing after the pledges were announced. “We have sought to send a message of relief to the millions of Syrians who have been affected by this terrible crisis.” The Third International Humanitarian Pledging Conference, mobilized donor support to meet the needs set out in the 2015 Syria Response Plan and the Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan (3RP) 2015-2016.

The pledges come as the situation in Syria continues its downwards spiral. Some 12.2 million people, including 5.6 million children, now need humanitarian assistance. By conservative estimates, more than 220,000 Syrians have died in the conflict, but that number is likely much higher. Four out of five Syrians live in poverty and the country has lost nearly four decades of human development, with unemployment at over 50 per cent. Life expectancy has been cut by 20 years.

“People have experienced breathtaking levels of violence and savagery in Syria,” Valerie Amos, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and UN Emergency Relief Coordinator (OCHA),said  as she addressed the press. “While we cannot bring peace, this funding will help humanitarian organizations deliver life-saving food, water, shelter, health services and other relief to millions of people in urgent need.”

Many of the 3.9 million refugees now hosted in countries neighbouring Syria face a daily struggle for survival, their savings long depleted. More than a third live in sub-standard shelter, hunkering down in garages, crowded rooms, or makeshift settlements. Some 600,000 refugees are out of school, 2.4 million are in need of food aid, and 1.4 million very vulnerable people need cash assistance to meet their most basic needs. Meanwhile, the economies, societies and infrastructure of the host countries are buckling under the strain of hosting so many refugees.

Meanwhile, Islamic State fighters killed at least 37 people in a Syrian village near the city of Hama overnight, a group monitoring the war said, part of a pattern of attacks by the ultra-radical force in government-held areas of western Syria.

Syrian state television put the number killed at 44 and said 21 others had been wounded in the attack on Mabouja, a 60-km (40 mile) drive east of Hama. A Syrian military source said the army had repelled the assault on Tuesday.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which uses a network of contacts to monitor the four-year-old civil war, said Islamic State fighters had killed entire families and the dead included people who had been burnt to death.

The population includes Alawites and Ismailis - sects deemed heretical by the puritanical Islam espoused by Islamic State, said Rami Abdulrahman, who runs the Observatory.

Alawites, Ismailis and Sunni residents were among the dead, he said.

The area is some 200 km from Raqqa - the de facto capital of the Islamic State's self-declared caliphate that spans territory in both Syria and Iraq. It is part of the western region where Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has sought to shore up his control.

Assad, an Alawite, enjoys backing among many members of Syrian minority communities who fear hardliners.

Islamic State fighters have mounted numerous attacks in government-held areas in the provinces of Hama and Homs in recent weeks, even as it has lost ground in the north and northeast under pressure from a Kurdish militia backed by US-led air strikes.

The military source said: "Daesh tried to attack the village, and this attack was repelled, and a large number of Daesh terrorists were killed. And now the Syrian army is imposing its control over the village."

Daesh is an Arabic name for Islamic State.

"Daesh is making a lot of attempts (to advance) east of Hama. It is trying a lot in that area, particularly after its loss in Shaar field," he said, referring to a gas field in Homs province reclaimed by the government in recent months.

Islamic State has been moving westwards across Syria and fighters say they plan to take Salamiya, a town east of Hama city before taking control of the provincial capital itself.