Death toll soars in Syria since U.N. monitors stopped their work

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 4, 2012 

— The number of people killed in violence in Syria has skyrocketed since U.N. efforts to broker a peace agreement fell apart in June, with the total number of dead, including both government loyalists and opponents, now likely surpassing 30,000 since demonstrations against President Bashar Assad began nearly 18 months ago, according to recently available statistics.

The pace of killing grew by 55 percent in July and then another 48 percent in August, according to numbers gathered by the Syrian Network for Human Rights, which documents rebel and civilian deaths.

While the increase in violence has been obvious – the rebels launched assaults on the country’s capital, Damascus, and its business center, Aleppo, in July, and the government counterattacked in August – the speed with which the violence has surged, as captured by the numbers, is breathtaking.

During April and May, the two months when the U.N.’s Syria envoy, Kofi Annan, was actively trying to find an accommodation between Assad and his opponents, the death toll dropped 36 percent from its previous high, in March, when the Syrian Network for Human Rights recorded 2,101 deaths. In May, that number had fallen to 1,344.

But once the rebels declared an end to the cease-fire and the U.N. pulled back its observers in mid-June, deaths shot up quickly – by 78 percent, to 2,336, in June; up another 55 percent, to 3,643, in July, and then up nearly 48 percent in August, to 5,384, a record high. The last U.N. monitor left Syria on Aug. 23.

Those totals do not include the deaths of Syrian soldiers, police and government sympathizers killed by the rebels. The Syrian government news service, SANA, last reported casualty counts for its forces in late June, when at least 649 had died so far that month.

Altogether, however, the likely death toll is now in excess of 30,000 since the uprising began in March 2011, with the Syrian Network for Human Rights saying it had recorded more than 24,000 civilian and rebel deaths, and the government reporting a total death toll of 7,928 as of July 9, according to a U.N. report released last month.

How many of the dead are combatants is impossible to know. The Syrian Network for Human Rights said 596 women and children died in July and 784 in August.

The rising violence also has driven more people from their homes, with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees reporting that more than 200,000 Syrians now have sought refuge outside Syria. Thousands more are waiting to do so but have not been allowed to cross borders, as neighboring countries have tightened border controls in anticipation of a surge of refugees.

It’s difficult to say who has the upper hand in the fighting. August saw major offensives by the Syrian government to dislodge rebel fighters from areas they’d taken in July, particularly in Damascus. But despite heavy shelling and the government’s troops overrunning one rebel stronghold in the southern part of the city, fighting continues in many of the same places where the government has been battling rebels since mid-June. Rebels have also continued their campaign of bombings in the capital, striking government security offices on Sunday.

Syrian anti-government activists claim that the regime has recently instituted a “shoot-on-sight” policy, and they reported a number of mass executions in August, particularly in and around Damascus. The numbers of executed ranged from four or five at a time to more than 150 in one instance.

Refugees, rebels and human rights groups all say the Syrian government’s use of airstrikes has intensified in past months.

“We recently documented the Syrian government striking breadlines in Aleppo province. The strikes are wildly indiscriminate, and the long lines are resulting from bread shortages,” said Lama Fakih, a researcher in Beirut for the independent advocate Human Rights Watch. “When we do this type of documentation, we try to assess if there was a legitimate military target, and in a number of cases there haven’t been.”

One particular weapon that has struck fear among Syrians is referred to as a “barmeel,” which means “barrel” in Arabic and appears to be little more than explosives and shrapnel packed into an oil drum and pushed out of government aircraft.

“They used 20 containers full of TNT on Jusiyeh,” said Mohamed al Homsi, a Syrian activist, referring to a small town near the Lebanese border that has been a transit point for supplies into the country and refugees leaving it.

Al Homsi said the government also was using heavier rockets than before to target areas of Homs, the country’s third largest city, which has been pounded by artillery and rocket fire for months in an attempt to dislodge rebels from the center of the city.

“We expect the violence to get worse,” said al Homsi, who described a state of siege in Homs that allowed little in and little out.

The Syrian Red Crescent, which represents the International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in Syria, has delivered aid to more than 800,000 people since the beginning of the year. But this still falls short of serving those in need, according to Rabab al Rifai, the ICRC’s spokeswoman in Damascus.

“The humanitarian situation has been deteriorating severely for the past weeks. There’s a lot fighting in many places in Syria, and as a consequence, there are thousands of people who have left their houses,” Rifai said. “Many of them are staying in schools, they are staying in mosques.”

“The people in Hajjar al Aswad leave the neighborhood when the shelling starts and then go back when it stops,” said a resident of southern Damascus, referring to neighborhood that has been the site of battles and regular shelling for more than a month.

Some of Hajjar al Aswad’s residents had taken up in residence in schools belonging to the U.N. Refugee Works Agency in the nearby neighborhood of Yarmouk. The agency administers services for Syria’s approximately half-million Palestinians.

Amid the worsening crisis, there are concerns for refugees who are trying to leave the country or already have left.

“We’re calling on the neighboring countries to maintain open border policies,” said Fakih of Human Rights Watch. “There were 200 people last Wednesday that the Jordanian government announced voluntarily returned to Syria, but there were statements that came out suggesting the Jordanian government might be returning people who had been responsible for rioting in Zaatari refugee camp,” a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan’s northern desert where residents clashed last month with Jordanian security officials over poor treatment and harsh conditions.

Al Qaim, the only border crossing from Iraq to Syria that was admitting Syrians, has been closed since mid-August, and there were also concerns about Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

“At the beginning of August we spoke to one individual who was returned from Lebanon to Syria,” Fakih said, adding that the individual had been part of a group of 14 people who were reportedly forcibly returned.

Enders is a McClatchy special correspondent. Email: twitter: @davidjenders

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