A new year has sadly brought no hope for any end to the
blood-letting in Syria. The death toll in the embattled
country now exceeds 60,000, according to the United Nations,
and hundreds are often killed in a single day.
UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has warned a further
100,000 could die this year. The humanitarian situation is
dire in Syria but also deeply concerning in surrounding
countries such as Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt,
where UN figures
now show more than half a million refugees have fled. The
Arab League was due to hold an emergency meeting in Cairo
late last night New Zealand time to address the problem in
Lebanon, home to more than 185,000 Syrian refugees.
Tragically, it appears Mr Brahimi's prediction of the death
toll is likely to be a far more realistic assessment for the
future than the claims at the beginning of the uprising
against President Bashar al-Assad in March 2011.
At that time, there was the expectation the conflict would go
the same way as many of the 2011 ''Arab Spring'' revolts
elsewhere which were violent but brief and in some cases
brought about democratic change with the ousting of dictators
in Tunisia (Zine El Abidine Ben Ali), Egypt (Hosni Mubarak)
and Libya (Muammar Gaddafi, who was later killed).
While the initial results of the uprisings in some countries
may have been short-lived, and the situation in many remains
volatile, it is the situation in Syria that still dominates
the headlines. The despair of innocent children, women and
elderly caught in the crossfire between Mr Assad's forces and
the Free Syrian Army in the ongoing conflict is evident.
Most heartbreaking seems to be the powerlessness and/or
unwillingness of the outside world to stop it. The peace
efforts of Mr Brahimi and his predecessor Kofi Annan have
proved futile, Russia, China and Iran back Mr Assad, the West
and most Arab states would like to see an end to the violence
but are not prepared to intervene, the opposition National
Coalition will not hold talks with Mr Assad, who in his first
public speech in six months last week defiantly rejected any
peace talks with those he deemed extremists and terrorists
and ''gangs recruited abroad that follow the orders of
foreigners'', and rallied Syrians for ''a war to defend the
The future looks bleak and is a far cry from the optimism of
last July, when a bomb attack killed four of Mr Assad's key
military advisers and was hailed by some as the turning point
in the then 16-month uprising. Syrian rebel commander
Abdullah al-Shami said then the deaths marked a ''qualitative
shift'' and he expected ''a speedy collapse of the regime''.
Of increasing concern also is the threat of chemical weapons,
with claims at the end of last month the Assad regime was
mixing them for use and a reportedly dramatic response from
the US, Russia and other Arab states which halted their
But there have also been claims that some sort of gas has
been used by government troops against rebels in Homs - and
also that rebels have used chemical weapons against the army
in Daraya. The truth is hard to verify as the Syrian
Government has barred most foreign media coverage of the
conflict and many journalists are smuggled in illegally and
at great risk.
The US has said the use of chemical weapons would constitute
a ''red line'' that Syria must not breach, but given the
Assad regime's already extreme use of firepower and the
ever-increasing toll on the ground, it remains unclear
whether their use would in fact spur any decisive action.
The legacy of the West's invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq
has been a diminishing appetite for sending troops to war on
foreign soil, and fear intervention could escalate regional
conflict, and even global unrest, as long as international
heavyweights like Russia and China continue to support the
But as US President Barack Obama said of Syria in July: ''The
world is watching.''
But quite how long it will continue to turn a blind eye to
the slaughter on the ground remains anyone's guess.