Syria death toll climbs as West label civil war a stalemate

This weekend saw one of the highest death tolls for Syrian rebels in a civil war that has now claimed an estimated 93,000 lives.

Mohamed Abdullah/REUTERS
Children play in front of damaged buildings in the Arabeen neigborhood of Damascus, Syria, July 21, 2013.

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Syrian rebels suffered one of their worst single-day death tolls Sunday, as at least 75 were killed by regime troops in battles for control of Damascus, even as Western officials warned the civil war looked to be a "stalemate."

According to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the majority of those killed on Sunday died in an ambush by President Bashar al-Assad's forces in the Damascus suburb of Adra, reports the Associated Press. According to the group, which gathers reports from activists inside Syria, 49 rebels were killed in the attack. Syrian state news agency SANA also reported the ambush, but did not give casualties.

Another 26 rebels were killed in fighting in other suburbs of the city, according to the Observatory. AP notes that more than 93,000 people have died in Syria's civil war.

The deadly day came amid growing doubts in the West over the rebels' odds of successfully toppling President Assad on the battlefield. On Saturday, British Prime Minister David Cameron told the BBC that while he still believed that moderate groups among the rebels deserved support, the increasing influence of Islamists over the rebels and Assad's resiliency are painting "a very depressing picture" of the conflict.

"There is too much extremism among the rebels. There is also still appalling behaviour from this dreadful regime using chemical weapons. There is an enormous overspill of problems into neighboring countries."

He added: "I think he [Assad] may be stronger than he was a few months ago but I'd still describe the situation as a stalemate."

The BBC's Emily Buchanan notes that the interview "shows just how far David Cameron has rowed back from his previous bullish calls for action."

Last November he called on the newly re-elected Barack Obama to address the Syrian crisis as a priority. Then, in December, he pushed the EU for an early review of the arms embargo.

But as the conflict has dragged on and more evidence of the involvement of extremist groups has emerged, discomfort over getting involved in a bitter civil war has grown.

It's unlikely that arming the rebels could now be passed through Parliament with dozens of Conservative MPs opposed.

Mr. Cameron's view that the war is at a stalemate appears to be held in the US as well, based on comments by David R. Shedd, a Defense Intelligence Agency deputy director. The New York Times reports that Mr. Shedd told the Aspen Security Forum, an annual meeting on security issues, that the conflict could last “many, many months to multiple years” and infect neighboring countries like Jordan and Iraq.

“My concern is that it could go on for a long time,” Mr. Shedd said, voicing concern that the civilian casualties, refugee flows and internal dislocation would increase. “It is in large measure a stalemate.”

Shedd also warned that even if Assad fell, the war could still take "years" due to the increasing entrenchment of radical Islamist groups like Jabat al-Nusra, the militants affiliated with al-Qaeda in Iraq.

“If he loses and goes to an enclave inside there, I think there will be ongoing civil war for years to come,” he said, noting that more radical elements like the Nusra Front would fight to control parts of the country. “They will fight for that space. They’re there for the long haul.”

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