The death toll in Syria now exceeds 60,000, the United Nations says. Another 100,000 may die this year, warns U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi. About 220 were killed on Wednesday alone.
“When numbers get serious, they leave a mark on your door,” goes a song by American musician Paul Simon.
But in Syria those bloody notches show no signs of braking a headlong struggle to the death watched from afar by divided outside powers, most of whose leaders seem convinced that the risks of direct intervention outweigh any possible rewards.
Syrians realise they are essentially on their own, and 21 months after the start of protests against President Bashar al-Assad inspired by Arab revolts elsewhere, some of the civilians caught up in what has become a civil war are near despair.
“It’s all nonsense,” said Adnan Abu Raad, an elderly man wrapped in a scarf against the cold, as he watched fresh graves being dug after 11 people were killed in a weekend air strike in the rebel-held Syrian town of Azaz near the border with Turkey.
“Neither the Free Syrian Army nor Assad’s forces can protect us. The two factions are fighting each other, but no one is dying except for the innocent, the children, women and elderly.”
Abu Raad derided the peace efforts of Brahimi and his predecessor Kofi Annan as hypocrisy and dismissed reports of even limited outside help for the rebellion against Assad as fiction. “No one has sent us a single bullet. It’s all a lie.”
Some Western countries have provided what they call non-lethal aid to rebels, while some Arab states are reported to have sent weapons, mostly channelled through Turkey. Fighters complain of a dearth of ammunition even for the arms they have acquired.
Without a negotiated solution, Brahimi said on Saturday, Syria may soon resemble Somalia as a failed state plagued by warlords and destabilising its neighbours. But the opposition National Coalition rules out talks until Assad goes, while the Syrian leader says he will not give in to his foes.
The insurgents have grabbed swathes of countryside in the north and east, as well as holding parts of Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city, and some suburbs of Damascus, the capital.
Yet Assad’s power base is more cohesive than that of his fractious opponents. He controls the armed forces, using air power and heavy weaponry to contain rebel advances or to pound any towns or urban districts that slip out of his control.
“HURT THE PEOPLE”
In Azaz cemetery, Abu Bahri, a 45-year-old in a black coat, accused Assad of seeking to sap rebel support by targeting civilians and depriving them of water, electricity and bread.
“Hurt the people and turn them against the Free Syria Army. It’s a calculated move,” he said, as the grave-diggers’ spades gouged at the soil to lay the next victims to rest.
With the military struggle evolving so slowly, no end to the bloodletting is in sight. The outside world appears impotent.
Indeed, many Syrians on both sides have concluded that by defining any use of chemical weapons as a “red line”, Washington has effectively given Assad immunity to use anything else.
The United States and its European allies, after extricating themselves from Iraq and soon Afghanistan, show no appetite for another such venture, with Syria viewed as more likely to become an Iraq-style quagmire than a Libyan quasi-success.
In 2011, the U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution interpreted by the West as allowing a NATO bombing campaign that helped rebels defeat Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi – whose air defences were flimsy and whose friends were few.
Syria’s dense core of towns and cities, as well as the sectarian diversity of its 23 million people in a country formally at war with Israel and deeply inter-connected with a volatile regional neighbourhood, all mark it off from Libya.
For their part, Russia and China have vetoed three Security Council resolutions on Syria, for fear they might lead to sanctions or foreign meddling aimed at ousting Assad.
Shi’ite Iran fiercely opposes outside intervention against its main Arab ally. The Shi’ite-led government in Iraq also fears the consequences of any victory for mostly Sunni Muslim rebels against Assad and his Shi’ite-linked Alawite minority.
Egypt’s new Islamist leaders have called for Assad’s fall, but the most populous Arab nation, gripped by its own political and economic turmoil, is in no shape to bring this about.
NEW “REALISM” IN TURKEY
Turkey, which swiftly turned against its former Syrian ally and for months talked of a possible no-fly zone or safe haven inside Syria, also said it would never intervene unilaterally.
“There is a more realistic assessment now of what the international community can do,” said Sinan Ulgen of the Istanbul-based Centre for Economic and Foreign Policy Studies.
Now worried about Syria’s chemical weapons, a growing influx of refugees, and Syrian support for Kurdish militants, Ankara is focusing more on urging its allies to give the rebels more help.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan met Russian President Vladimir Putin in Istanbul a month ago in the hope of persuading him to soften his stance on Syria, but made little apparent headway.
U.S. allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar have provided funds for weapons and other supplies to Assad’s opponents, albeit selectively by all accounts, favouring Islamists over others.
Given their own autocratic systems and eagerness to suppress Shi’ite dissent in Sunni-ruled Bahrain, the Gulf nations cannot credibly portray themselves as champions of democracy in Syria.
The Saudis are preoccupied by their regional and sectarian rivalry with Iran. They have every interest in the removal of Assad, a linchpin of a once-vaunted “axis of resistance” to Israel and the United States that also included Lebanon’s Iranian-backed Shi’ite Hezbollah group and – until it changed sides last year – the Palestinian Sunni Islamist Hamas movement.
A Gulf Arab official declined to disclose his state’s support for the Syrian opposition, but said government violence had left the rebels with no choice but to adopt military means.
He faulted the West for not backing the rebels decisively and for what he said were its attempts to restrain others from doing so, for fear of plunging Syria further into chaos.
“But there will be chaos whatever happens,” he said. “We have argued that if you step up the fight, there will be a quicker result and the chaos that follows will be shorter.”
Mustafa Alani, a Gulf-based security analyst, said funding for rebels actually came mostly from individuals not Gulf state budgets. He argued that Syrian rebels were increasingly arming themselves from looted or captured army stocks, making the issue of outside intervention less critical than it had seemed.
“The battle has now moved to Damascus. The idea is that things will slowly collapse,” he said.
Predictions by some Western leaders in recent weeks that Assad’s demise is imminent have failed to materialise.
As the civil war grinds on, the grave-diggers in Azaz and countless other conflict zones across Syria will stay busy.