The United Nations revised its death toll in the Syrian civil war sharply upward to at least 93,000 Thursday, lending new urgency to Obama administration discussions this week of US options in the deepening conflict.
The UN’s new official figure of 93,000 deaths as of the end of April suggests that at least 5,000 fighters and civilians – among them many children – are dying in the war in Syria each month. The new figure is more than 30,000 higher than the last official figure issued in November.
In announcing the figures, the UN commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, said indications that the Assad regime is preparing a major offensive to try to retake the northern city of Aleppo could portend another sharp increase in casualties.
Reports of a coming Aleppo offensive have prompted opposition leaders to warn supporters in the West that it may be now or never to help rebel fighters, who already face arms and ammunition shortages and who are increasingly outgunned by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. The Assad regime is widely considered to have regained the upper hand in the war in recent weeks, especially as Iran-backed Hezbollah fighters have joined the battle on Mr. Assad’s side.
Reports of a looming offensive on Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, are also hanging over this week’s White House meetings on Syria. President Obama gathered his national security team Wednesday for discussions that were to include options for “rebalancing” the war’s momentum, which range from arming the rebels to establishing a no-fly zone to protect rebels and civilians from Assad’s increased use of aerial bombardments.
Obama administration officials continue to insist that the US is determined to help the rebels, but there were no indications that Wednesday’s meeting produced any decisions.
“We are determined to do everything that we can in order to help the opposition,” Secretary of State John Kerry said Wednesday, after meeting with his British counterpart, Foreign Secretary William Hague. Noting that Assad is using weapons and tactics against his own people that “challenge anybody’s values and standards of human behavior,” Mr. Kerry said the US is “going to have to make judgments … about how we can help the opposition to deal with that.”
At the same time, however, White House spokesman Jay Carney cautioned against expectations of quick decisions from the president on what to do next to help the rebels. The White House continues to worry that US-provided arms – especially the anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons the rebels seek – could fall into the hands of the Islamist extremist groups who are also fighting Assad.
Administration officials are concerned that weapons such as shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, which could be a potent force against Assad’s intensifying air war, might also end up turned against US interests and Israel, America’s closest ally in the region. Advocates of providing US weaponry, including Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, say rebel factions can be vetted before receiving US arms.
As the Washington debate continues, the UN is painting a picture of a war that is taking a terrible and increasingly devastating toll on Syria’s children. At least 1,700 children under age 10 have died in the war, according to High Commissioner Pillay.
A separate UN report issued Thursday about the war’s impact on children says government forces torture children suspected of having links to the rebels. But it also accuses both sides of using children as suicide bombers and human shields, and to prepare and transport weapons.
Syria’s children are suffering “the heaviest toll” of anywhere in the world, the report says, noting that safe zones for children are shrinking as the war expands.
Videos uploaded to the Internet show children crushed in buildings blasted by Assad’s air force, or crying over the lifeless bodies of mothers and other family members.
Yet even as such scenes feed the image of Assad as a ruthless tyrant ready to sacrifice his people to retain power, other stories out of rebel-held areas hardly offer a brighter picture for children.
One such story concerns a 14-year-old coffee vendor, killed Sunday in Aleppo by Islamist rebels for allegedly blaspheming the name of the Prophet Muhammad.
Mohammad Qataa, selling cups of coffee from a stand to help support his family, incurred the wrath of Islamist extremists after he refused to give one of them a cup of coffee on credit, allegedly saying, “Even if Muhammad came down from heaven, I would not give you this coffee on credit."
Infuriated, the men threw Mohammad in a car, according to wire reports, later returning him to his coffee stand badly beaten. Then with Mohammad’s helpless mother present, the men, condemning the boy for “blasphemy,” shot him in the head.