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.

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