Earlier this month, the United Nations announced its assessment that 59,648 people have died in Syria's two-year-old civil war. That headline figure is grim, but U.N. human rights commissioner Navi Pillay made a point of noting that the real number is almost certainly higher. The overwhelming majority of those people were civilians. Far too many of them were children.
That should have been a call to action. It wasn't. The government's attacks against civilians continue unabated. U.N. Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has accomplished next to nothing. The daily death tolls continue to spiral. Unless the international community does something, the total is going to be far higher.
Why do I say that? Because the fateful wheel of atrocity and reprisal, so familiar from past civil wars, is gathering momentum. It could hardly be any different, considering the scale of the killing so far. The Assad regime bears full responsibility for launching the carnage. But it does not bear sole responsibility for all the crimes that have been committed, and it will not bear sole responsibility for the crimes that are yet to come.
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There can be little question that the complex ethnic and sectarian makeup of Syria is exacerbating the situation as the bloodshed goes on. Assad family rule in Syria over the past 40 years has rested primarily on the country's ethnic and religious minorities: above all the Alawites (adherents of an offshoot of Shiite Islam), as well as some Kurds and Christians. Members of the Sunni majority have been largely excluded from power. As those who have borne the brunt of the regime's injustices, they now form the largest force in the opposition.
Divides are deepening. Though it's understandably hard to get precise reports, Human Rights Watch has recently documented attacks by opposition forces on a Shiite place of worship and two churches on the outskirts of the city of Latakia, the stronghold of Syria's Alawite population. The rebels have been criticized in the past for committing abuses against prisoners taken from the pro-Assad armed forces or militias (the notorious shabiha). The growing prominence of jihadist groups among the rebel Free Syrian Army is another source of concern. The worry is that radicals in the opposition are now actively targeting civilians from the groups that have been allied with the government.
Let's consider the potential scale of the problem: There are some two million Kurds in Syria, plus roughly the same number of Christians. There are two and a half million Alawites. They have been schooled by regime propaganda to believe that they will become the victims of pogroms and ethnic cleansing should their side lose the war. That probably wasn't true back when their fellow Syrians were peacefully demonstrating for change, but now it's on the way to becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Sunnis account for at least 12.6 million of the population. (They actually make up the bulk of the Syrian regular army's soldiers, who are right now held at bay by Alawite officers and the shabiha.) As soon as the Assad regime loses the advantages of its air power and its heavy weapons, the Sunnis will be able to make their superior numbers count. Their enemies won't stand a chance.