Three years of strife and cruelty put Syria in free fall

f13-iconThe New York Times reports: Day after day, the Syrian civil war has ground down a cultural and political center of the Middle East, turning it into a stage for disaster and cruelty on a nearly incomprehensible scale. Families are brutalized by their government and by jihadists claiming to be their saviors as nearly half of Syrians — many of them children — have been driven from their homes.

At the start of the fourth year since Syrians rose up in a peaceful movement that turned to arms after violent repression, a snapshot of the country presents the harsh truth that Syria’s descent is only accelerating, with nothing to check it.

The government bombards neighborhoods with explosive barrels, missiles, heavy artillery and, the United States says, chemical weapons, then it sends in its allies in Hezbollah and other militias to wage street warfare. It jails and tortures peaceful activists, and uses starvation as a weapon, blockading opposition areas where trapped children shrivel and die.

The opposition is now functionally dominated by foreign-led jihadists who commit their own abuses in the name of their extremist ideology, just last week shooting a 7-year-old boy for what they claimed was apostasy. And some of those fighters, too, have targeted civilians and used siege tactics.

It is not as if the world has no evidence of Syria’s ordeal, which has killed an estimated 150,000 people. Syrians have issued a sustained, collective cry for help from what is now probably history’s most-documented manmade disaster. They capture appalling suffering on video and beam the images out to the world: skeletal infants, body parts pulled from the rubble of homes, faces stretched by despair, over and over.

Despite that, to the bitterness of Syrians, the world’s diplomatic attention is drifting. Even as Syria’s epic suffering is remaking the human geography of the Middle East and beyond, initiatives to ease the crisis have sputtered and failed to offer effective help. Already tenuous hopes for an internationally brokered peace settlement have further faded as Russian-American relations worsen.

António Guterres, the head of the United Nations refugee agency, said that is in part because there is no obvious path to a coherent global response. Given the world’s growing unpredictability, and competing priorities, “crises are multiplying and more and more difficult to solve,” he said. “Afghanistan is not finished. Somalia is not finished. It’s overwhelming.”

All the while, Syria is falling apart.

Last weekend, another vital center of opposition life — the city of Yabrud, near the Lebanese border — fell to pro-government forces. As each such haven has been shattered, like Homs and Qusayr, it has become a watchword for civilian suffering, and more are displaced.

The country is threatened with de facto partition among the government, Kurdish militias and a patchwork of insurgent groups, some seeking to impose extremist Islamist rule. Criminal gangs profit from chaos, and pro-government militias increasingly threaten to slip from state control. A regional proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran further polarizes the conflict and fuels its sectarian dimension.

Adding to the urgency is the growing scale of regional destabilization. With nine million Syrians driven from their homes, according to the United Nations, 2.5 million of them into nearby countries, the Syrian displacement dwarfs the exodus from British-mandate Palestine during the war over Israel’s founding in 1948, a flight of 750,000 people that fuels conflict and hardship to this day. [Continue reading…]

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