Syria’s Rising Death Toll: The Darkness Before the Dawn or Sign of a Grinding Stalemate?

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Ahmed Jadallah / Reuters

Abdlhamid Haj Omar, 70, a father who lost three sons and two grandsons in the ongoing Syrian crisis, prays as he visits their graves at the Martyrs' cemetery in Azaz, north of Aleppo, on Dec. 25, 2012

At least 60,000 Syrians have been killed in the country’s civil war since March 2011, U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay reported Wednesday. Despite that death toll, which Pillay described as “truly shocking,” U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi warned last weekend that the increasingly sectarian conflict could claim a further 100,000 lives in the coming year without necessarily producing a decisive outcome. Brahimi warned that the war “presents a grave danger not only to the Syrian people but to the neighboring countries and the world,” and he predicted that left unresolved, the conflict would turn Syria into an equivalent of Somalia — a failed state carved into fiefdoms run by local warlords.

Those grim assessments by U.N. officials are clearly intended to spur international stakeholders to act more urgently to end the conflict. “The choice,” warned Brahimi, “is between a political solution or of full collapse of the Syrian state,” adding that “if the only alternative is really hell or a political process, then all of us should work tirelessly for a political process.” That’s what Brahimi himself is tasked with doing, but he is encountering the same problems that bedeviled his predecessor, former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who resigned as Syria peace envoy last year in exasperation at the refusal of the Syrian protagonists and their external backers to make the compromises necessary to stop the war.

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A political solution to end the war at this stage — even if it involved democratic elections that would almost certainly result in President Bashar Assad being removed from power — would nonetheless require that the opposition negotiate such a transition with Assad and his regime. That much will remain true until the military tide has turned decisively against the regime, or it faces internal collapse under the weight of military and economic pressure. But the opposition National Coalition formed in November with Western and Arab backing steadfastly refuses to talk to Assad, insisting his ouster is a precondition for negotiations. The rebels and Western analysts advocating for more muscular intervention remain confident that the regime’s collapse is imminent and are skeptical of calls for negotiation. “The regime appears to have only a few weeks left before it collapses,” said Washington Institute for Near East Policy analyst Jeffrey White in late December. “As the end nears, its allies may issue desperate pleas for a U.N.-brokered ceasefire, but the rebels see absolutely no advantage in that approach.”

Despite the efforts of Brahimi — and also of more sympathetic powers such as Russia and China, as well as Assad’s Lebanese ally, Hizballah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah — to promote a negotiated settlement, the regime has shown no interest in acceding to a democratic transition that would lead to its ouster. And its leaders believe they are fighting the rebels to a stalemate.

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“Absent some dramatic increase in external intervention, Assad could still be there in 2014,” says Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma. “There’s nothing obvious in the current dynamic that’s going to force him out. He has barricaded the major cities with layers of security, allowing the impoverished periphery of some to fall into rebel hands, but then using his air power and artillery to devastate those neighborhoods. Almost two years into the uprising and despite the rebels’ recent momentum, they have not yet taken full control of a single major city or town. That’s a bad sign for the rebels.”

The sectarian character of the civil war has been underscored by the fact that Alawites — even many with grievances against the Assads — have rallied behind a regime dominated by their minority sect for fear of their fate should the predominantly Sunni rebellion triumph. While opposition analysts predict that the regime will soon run out of money, rebel-controlled areas are even more starved of resources. And the regime, which maintains an overwhelming advantage in weaponry, appears to be directing attacks in line with a strategy to exacerbate shortages of food and fuel in those areas, assuming that shortages and the competition for scarce resources will alienate the civilian population from the rebel fighters that control their areas — a dynamic that seems to be taking hold, according to some reports from Aleppo and elsewhere.

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“Despite the confident predictions coming from the rebels and their backers,” says Landis, “nobody in the opposition today can explain how they’re going to win. The regime has the unity, it has all the heavy weapons. Many of the rebels continue to operate on the assumption that the U.S. will intervene to tip the balance for them.”

But despite growing agitation by some in Washington for a more muscular U.S. role in helping topple Assad, there’s no sign that the Obama Administration, or any of the other Western powers, or key neighbors like Turkey are inclined as yet to assume the substantial risks involved in intervening to break Syria’s stalemate. And the rising death toll won’t likely change those calculations.

MORE: Is Syria’s Civil War Entering Its Final Act or Poised for a New Phase?

20 comments
dinojagal
dinojagal

Only the dead know end of war

Rdr48
Rdr48

@tracysolomon @TIME @TIMEWorld What will world do about Assad, a mass murderer?

YehudaElyada
YehudaElyada

The only feasible way to stop the carnage in Syria is to ask Israel to intervene, in exchange for a true, warm peace. Neither side dares going this way, so you have 60,000 Arabs killed by Arabs with no solution on the horizon. And we feel rather comfortable not to fight for our murderous neighbors.

MikeStaresinic
MikeStaresinic

@KateSeelye @TIMEWorld Each escalation to date has been just that, escalation and acceleration, in spite of the enthusiasm in some quarters

avery_day
avery_day

@TIME @timeworld @JoeNBC First Look at Time ~

3arabiSouri
3arabiSouri

@TIME @timeworld There's no civil war in #Syria, unless #Obama droning terrrorists in #Afghanistan is an American civil war as well..!

VicBeech
VicBeech

the regime itself has shown no interest in acceding to a democratic transition  - REALLY?

Since the unrest began 20 months ago democratic reforms have been put in place. In August 2011 a new political parties’ law was passed licensing opposition parties. In February 2012 Syrians voted on a new constitution (this stipulates a president can only stay in power for a maximum of two seven year terms and also removes the Baath party as the only party in the government). In May 2012 elections were held creating a new parliament:


http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2011/moubayed260611.html
The Road to Syrian Democracy: by Sami Moubayed - the new political parties law
http://www.voltairenet.org/article173033.html
Constitution of the Syrian Arab Republic - 2012
http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2012/waziruddin180612.html
Syrian parliamentary election results
http://www.syrianews.cc/syria-myth-of-peaceful-protests/

I'm not saying more reform isnt needed but the government has shown itself more than willing to initiate reform. It is the rebels who dont want reform. They want sharia law.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bL58pyB7kYM
FSA Terrorist Message to the West - FSA fighting for Allah and want sharia law.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J9zNExuadTg
More FSA stating for the record they don’t want democracy but sharia law

VicBeech
VicBeech

These are the people the US government is supporting:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v_yjkOP2Zxc
Syria ~ FSA Jihadists Terrorists Are Using Children As Kamikaze

http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/news/world_news/Middle_East/article1184745.ece
Syria’s jihadists ‘feed beheaded Christian to dogs’

http://humanrightsinvestigations.org/2012/12/25/the-halfaya-bakery-massacre/
The ‘Halfaya bakery massacre’ - committed by rebels to blame the government


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E6GJSo548sU&feature=endscreen
A building destroyed by an air strike (for comparison)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yo8TU8catBk
Rebels killing rabbits with chemicals weapons and saying the enemies of allah will die like the rabbits


Sibir_Russia
Sibir_Russia

@sushilpershad  

Russia and China will not allow intervention in Syria, such a resolution in the UN did not take place - that we guarantee.

Sibir_Russia
Sibir_Russia

@YehudaElyada  

Foreign Minister of Russia Sergey Victorovich Lavrov: «One very wise man in response to the charges in the address of the UN in the fact that it is not enough what does and does not in a position to stop constantly appearing somewhere conflicts, he said that the UN was not created in order to make the earth a Paradise, but for the fact that humanity was not in hell."

Lakhdar Brahimi: "if the only alternative is really hell or a political process, then all of us should work tirelessly for a political process."

Identity3x5
Identity3x5

@3arabiSouri @TIME @TIMEWorld I was just about to highlight the same non truth.