By Peter Heinlein
Syrian government forces are coming in for fierce international criticism as they turn increasingly to air power to counter rebel strength on the ground. And both sides are using ever more brutal tactics, pushing casualty levels to new highs.
Nearly a quarter of a million Syrians have fled their homes in recent weeks, as government bombs and mortar shells have begun targeting heavily-populated areas.
Last week, amateur video on a social website, which could not be independently verified, purported to show the aftermath of attacks on the town of Deraa. This week, government raids struck Syria’s largest city, Aleppo.
Burying the victims is challenging authorities, as estimates of the death toll top 4,000 for August, the worst month since an opposition uprising began in March of last year.
As fighting rages, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told the General Assembly civilians are increasingly the victims, as the conflict takes what he called “a particularly brutal turn.”
“Syrian government forces continue indiscriminate shelling of densely populate areas with heavy weapons, tanks and air assets,” said Ban. “Opposition groups have stepped up military activity. Civilians bear the brunt of the violence.”
Many experts see the increase in civilian casualties as a sign that the government of President Bashar al-Assad is growing desperate.
The director of Arab politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, David Schenker, says the bombing campaign is a last-ditch attempt to undermine morale and end the revolt.
“It’s a scorched earth policy,” said Schenker. “Bashar Assad, the regime, understands that it cannot negotiate its way out of the problem.”
Schenker says the tactical switch to targeting civilian areas will complicate efforts to rebuild Syria’s religiously-diverse society.
“This is going to be a shattered society,” said Schenker. “It’s a society that had a history of religious coexistence, 74% Sunni population getting along with the Druze, the Christians, the Alawites. That’s going to be really hard to put this ethnic mosaic back together.
Syria’s top government spokesman maintained a hard line this week. Spokesman Oman al-Zoubi told a news conference the armed opposition is “unfit for negotiations.” He described them as “foreign agents.”
Al-Zoubi rejected suggestions that the government’s bombing campaign is forcing civilians to flee, and said they are welcome back anytime.
“The Syrian government did not and will never kick anyone out,” said Al-Zoubi. “The government will never accept that anyone has to live outside the country.”
The head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) visited Damascus this week to secure permission to monitor the conflict. President Assad was reported to have told him the ICRC could operate in Syria as long as it remained neutral.