(Recasts with US, Qatar, Saudi pledges)
By Sylvia Westall and Warren Strobel
KUWAIT, Jan 15 (Reuters) - Donors including the United States and wealthy Gulf Arab countries pledged $1 billion on Wednesday for U.N. humanitarian efforts in Syria, devastated by almost three years of civil war.
Kuwait's emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah, promised $500 million in fresh assistance, while the United States announced a contribution of $380 million. Qatar and Saudi Arabia pledged $60 million each.
The promises were announced at an international donor conference in Kuwait intended to help the United Nations reach a $6.5 billion aid target for the crisis in 2014.
The appeal launched last month is the largest in the history of the United Nations, which estimates that the conflict has rolled back human development gains in Syria by 35 years, with half the population now living in poverty.
"The flames of the humantarian crisis in Syria are still going on ... destroying all signs of life," Sheikh Sabah said, describing the conflict as a catastrophe.
The $1.5 billion pledged via the United Nations at a similar meeting last year in Kuwait was used in Syria and surrounding countries to provide food rations, medicine, drinking water and shelters. The largest donations at that conference came from Gulf Arab governments.
Overall, only 70 percent of all of the crisis funding needed for Syria in 2013 has been received by the United Nations, according to the body's Financial Tracking Service (FTS).
"Even under the best circumstances, the fighting has set back Syria years, even decades," said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who is chairing the Kuwait conference.
Ban has previously expressed regret that not all the promised donations have been received from the last meeting, with 20-30 percent still lacking.
Ban told the gathering on Wednesday he hoped peace talks due to be held in Switzerland on Jan. 22 would bring the Syrian government and opposition to the negotiating table.
"I hope this will launch a political process to establish a transitional governing body with a full executive powers, and most importantly, end the violence," he said.
The U.N.'s World Food Programme (WFP) said on Tuesday it had delivered rations to a record 3.8 million people in Syria in December, but civilians in eastern provinces and besieged towns near the capital remain out of reach.
The agency voiced concern at reports of malnutrition in besieged areas, especially of children caught up in the nearly three-year-old civil war, and called for greater access.
The WFP says it needs to raise $35 million every week to meet the food needs of people both inside Syria and in neighbouring countries.
Kerry said on Monday that Syria's government and some rebels might be willing to permit humanitarian aid to flow, enforce local ceasefires and take other confidence-building measures.
Kerry said that he and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had talked about the possibility of trying to encourage a ceasefire, possibly beginning with Aleppo, Syria's largest city.
Last year Kuwait sent more than $300 million to the United Nations for the emergency campaign, making it the biggest Middle Eastern donor. The United States is the top country donor.
More than 60 countries are expected at this year's Kuwait gathering, including representatives from Arab states, Europe and the United States. (Reporting by Sylvia Westall,; Writing by Rania El Gamal, Editing by William Maclean)