Time and again in the bloody Syrian conflict, as Bashar Assad seeks to crush his own people, it has seemed that the horrors could not increase. Yet this week has seen news of yet further depravities, all too often visited upon civilians who have been caught in the firing line.
It is now clear that, as with Muammar Qaddafi in his own doomed attempt to hang on to power, rape and sexual violence are being used as a tool against the civilian population suspected of sympathizing with, or actually assisting the fighters. This despicable behavior is more than a loathsome crime which can traumatize victims for life; it also brings shame and dishonor upon them and their families. That is why both Qaddafi and now Assad see rape as such a potent weapon.
What neither leader appears to have recognized, is the trail of white-hot fury these outrages leave in their wake. The families targeted may have been ambivalent about the insurgency, wishing, like many Syrians, simply for the violence to stop and for life to return to normal.
However, once their family has fallen victim to this odious assault, there can be no doubt where their sympathies will lie.
On top of this horror, it is now clear that Assad’s air force and artillery have been using cluster bombs and shells in increasing numbers. These iniquitous weapons, much favored by the Israelis in their failed 2006 assault on Lebanon, are now banned under an international treaty signed by 111 countries. The bomblets, into which the main ordinance breaks, are supposed to self-destruct after a given period. In reality, no such thing happens. Therefore the Assad regime, like Israel before it, is sowing a terrible harvest of maiming and death, to be gathered in by helpless children, or farmers or construction engineers, seeking to remove and heal the devastation now being wrought by Assad’s army.
But there is worse, even than this. Though the Americans seem oddly reluctant to confirm it, there now appears to be credible evidence that the regime has used some form of poison gas, on at least one occasion, in the original battle for Homs. This being the case, it seems clear that in the regime’s final death throes, Assad and his generals will have no hesitation whatsoever in ordering further deployment of their atrocious chemical weapons arsenal.
And finally there is the horrific weather, the worst for 20 years, which has seen torrential rain, heavy blizzards and plummeting temperatures. These have turned life among the more than 600,000 refuges who have fled Syria for tented camps in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon, into a miserable nightmare. Tent homes have been flooded, the camps themselves turned into insanitary swamps. Those refugee concentrations which have had to endure heavy snow and icy cold within their frail shelters, are now themselves having to cope with floods, as the weather warms, at least temporarily, and the snow and ice begin to melt.
Beside frostbite and hypothermia, there is now the clear risk of outbreaks of disease. The medical facilities provided by the Turks, Jordanians and Lebanese as well as the international community, are simply insufficient to cope with the likes of a cholera outbreak, if it occurs.
The outlook for some 2 million refugees, who have chosen to stay inside the country is arguably even worse. What international food aid that has been able to reach the country, by sea or overland, is no longer being fully distributed, because convoys cannot get through areas where there is fighting. There are reports moreover that the food and medicines that the relief trucks carry, are now being seized, along with the trucks themselves. These seizures, it appears are being made by both Assad’s forces and some of the fighters.
International aid agencies are now talking of a humanitarian crisis of “staggering” proportions, unless the international community is able the provide more funding and find better ways of bringing the aid into Syrian’s internal refugees. Many of these unfortunates, who fled their original homes for what they thought was sanctuary in other parts of the country with relatives or friends, have discovered to their dismay, that the fighting has followed them. As the regime loses ever more ground, so further areas of the country become a war zone.
Even moving into territory now firmly in fighters’ hands, is no solution, since the regime continues to bomb and shell these areas, causing a steady flow of dead and maimed, almost all of them innocent civilians.
With 60,000 of his people dead, Assad shows no sign of restraining his violence. What fresh perversity will he perpetrate next?