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In perhaps the grimmest milestone yet to hit Syria since the revolt began, activists have now officially named August the most deadly month of the conflict, with a total casualty toll of over 5,000. The last week of August claimed 1,600 lives alone, a number which may increase over the coming weeks as the Syrian Government continues to press an offense against rebel units in virtually all cities across the country. But what is even more disturbing than the rising death toll is the way Bashar al-Assad’s regime has chosen to escalate the conflict. Through its persistent use of warplanes and helicopter gunships on what would normally be classified as residential areas, hundreds of Syrians who have no involvement in the armed conflict are beginning to die in an alarming rate. Indeed, the Syrian army is now using cold-blooded murder to its list of tools, evidenced by the discovery of large groups of young men found dead around the capital, Damascus, with signs of torture and marks of execution. And in the first case of collective punishment, the Syrian military is now razing homes in neighborhoods that once hosted or are suspected to be sympathetic to opposition fighters.
While it is easy to just simply lay the blame on both the government and the opposition Free Syrian Army for the growing death toll, it has become quite clear to the international community over the past two months that Bashar al-Assad’s regime is the worst offender. Assad and his generals, still reeling from an insider explosion that killed four of the regime’s most important security officials (including Assad’s brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat), are now entirely dependent on their most powerful weapons. Unfortunately, many of those weapons are incredibly indiscriminate, which is causing an enormous loss of life on the part of civilians, some of whom are being killed by aerial attacks as they try to escape to Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq.
On paper, the Syrian army, equipped with heavy weapons, combat jets, helicopter-gunships and thousands of tanks and troop carriers, is the more superior force. However determined the Free Syrian Army is, the organization still does not possess the weaponry that is needed to challenge the regime’s air force, which can dislodge the FSA from deeply entrenched positions with a single bombing run. Rebel fighters have acknowledged this lack in capability to western journalists and Syrian activists for months now. Without anti-aircraft weapons, the Free Syrian Army will not be able to hold onto any territory over a long period of time.
Yet as the conflict has morphed into a gritty, street-by-street fight in some areas, the Syrian Government has not been able to hold onto much territory either. Damascus and Aleppo, two cities that were once defined by its tranquility and relative isolation to the rest of the country, are now both engulfed in the war as the FSA tries to expand the fight into the centers of power. The fighting has become so intense that it is often difficult to determine who is responsible for civilian deaths and where the front lines actually are.
The Assad regime fully grasps the fact that they are not able to snuff out resistance entirely. Realizing that their own control of the country is being loosened nearly every day, the Syrian army has increased its use of wholesale murder in the hope of scaring civilians from backing rebels in their homes and neighborhoods. The New York Times calls the method a terror-based approach to counterinsurgency, where the government shells a specific area for hours, and clears it of insurgents before committing house-to-house searches and killing anyone in the wrong place at the wrong time. The purpose of the system is to instill fear and send a message to the population: support the opposition, and you and your families will be massacred in the streets. The past week has seen an alarming rise in the rate of grisly murders in neighborhoods that have been retaken by the government. 24 dead bodies were found in a house n Kfar Soussa; another 60 were found in a garbage dump near the Damascus suburb of Qatana; and 200 corpses were discovered in a basement in Daraya after Syrian troops left the district. Cases such as these were once anomalies, but are now becoming a frequent part of the war as Assad’s forces push ahead with a no-holds-barred, lethal, and desperate counteroffensive.
The fighters of the Free Syrian Army, in the meantime, are being put in an extremely awkward position as a result of these mass murders. Without persistent international assistance in the form of advanced, heat-seeking rocket-propelled grenades, anti-aircraft missile batteries, and free flowing ammunition, the rebels are powerless to stop most of the civilian killings that are perpetrated by Assad’s forces. Most of the killings occur after rebel battalions are forced to flee for lack of firepower, as well as limited supplies of ammunition, food, and personnel. After an initial two or three hours of heavy shelling from regime mortars, tanks and jets, the Syrian army and its paramilitary allies are left to freely scavenge homes, stores, and mosques for people who are labeled as sympathetic to the opposition movement. Bashar al-Assad is banking that this system of clear, sweep, and kill will eventually turn the Syrian people away from supporting rebel operations, housing rebel fighters, or feeding the Free Syrian Army before and after battle. There is very little an outgunned insurgent movement who is working to claim territory of its own can do to halt this process.
Many are now afraid that the civil war in Syria has hit a new phase of brutality, pitting neighbor against neighbor, Sunni against Alawite. With activists finding dozens of bodies piled up in back allies, mosques, and homes after regime troops move on to other locations, the probability that the hundreds of militias that comprise the Free Syrian Army will restrain themselves from committing similar crimes is lowered. And with every gruesome murder or execution, it becomes that much more difficult to unite Syria’s many sectarian communities in the aftermath of Assad’s fall from grace.