As Syrian war death toll rises, senior air force general dies in rebel attack

Gen. Hussein Ishaq was the commander of Syria's air defenses and among the highest-ranking regime officials killed since the conflict began in 2011.

Hosam Katan/REUTERS
A damaged building is pictured at a site hit by what activists said were two barrel bombs dropped by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in al-Katerji district in Aleppo May 18, 2014.

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More than 162,000 people have been killed in Syria's three-year-old civil war, with the actual death toll likely closer to a quarter-million people, an anti-regime monitoring group said on Monday.

The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it has documented 162,402 deaths among all sides as a result of the conflict in Syria, reports the Associated Press.

At least 62,800 of those deaths are among forces loyal to the Syrian government, including the Syrian Army, militias fighting for President Bashar al-Assad, and Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon, Reuters reports. That tally also includes the death of Gen. Hussein Ishaq, the commander of Syria's air defenses, who died on Sunday after being fatally injured in an attack Saturday by rebels on an air defense base outside Damascus. The death of Ishaq, one of the highest-ranking officials in Mr. Assad's regime to have been killed, could be an "important psychological blow,"  the observatory's director, Rami Abdel Rahman, told the BBC.

The observatory tallied more than 42,700 dead among rebel forces, which includes both foreign-dominated jihadi groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and Syrian anti-Assad rebels. In addition to the combatants, 54,000 civilians and another 3,000 or so people whose affiliation is unclear have died in the war, the observatory adds.

The group warns that both sides of the war have downplayed their casualties, and that the total number of deaths is likely 70,000 higher, bringing the current death toll to nearly 230,000. The Associated Press notes that the United Nations stopped its tallies in July, saying it was no longer able to verify deaths on the ground.

The tide of war appears to have shifted in Mr. Assad's favor. Just two weeks ago, rebels withdrew from Homs, Syria's third-largest city and one of the earliest flashpoints of resistance to Assad's rule. Nick Blanford of The Christian Science Monitor reported that the rebels' withdrawal "affords Syria's leader renewed confidence ahead of a presidential election on June 3 in which he seeks another seven-year term to shore up his legitimacy."

Homs was the first major city in Syria where the revolt to unseat Assad took root in 2011. Its fall caps a year of regime battlefield successes: regaining the Qalamoun region between Damascus and Homs, driving rebel forces further from central Damascus, and crushing opposition pockets between Homs and Tartous on the coast.

While falling far short of outright victory, the military campaign has staved off the threat of imminent defeat and restored regime control over much of western Syria. The recent successes will likely reinforce the emerging de facto partition of Syria, with the regime holding the western half and the rebels controlling the north and east.

The deadlock in the conflict last week spurred the UN's special envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, to resign. The Monitor reported that Mr. Brahimi, who has earned a reputation for negotiating resolutions to seemingly intractable conflicts, found little common ground between the Syrian regime and the rebels – a faction itself divided by conflict between jihadi and more sectarian fighters – upon which to negotiate. That polarity was mirrored in the UN, where the West, favoring the rebels, and Russia, favoring Assad, remained at odds over how to ease the conflict.

Brahimi told al-Monitor, a Middle East-centric news site, that he regrets that more attention was not paid to Russia's warnings early in the crisis.

I think the Russian analysis was right at the beginning, but everybody thought that it was an opinion and not an analysis. The Russians were saying that Syria is not Egypt and it is not Tunisia, and the president of Syria is not going to fall in a matter of two or three weeks. People thought that this was not an analysis [but that rather] it was an expression of position: “We are going to support this regime.”

Maybe, maybe if people listened to them, and went to them, and said, "Listen, you clearly know the situation in Syria better than anybody else. Let’s sit down and see how we can help Syria solve its problems." Perhaps things would have been different. But that did not happen.

Brahimi added that the situation in Ukraine has exacerbated the West-Russia split, making that diplomatic road even rockier. He did express hope, however, that Iran, a close Assad ally, has called for the withdrawal of all foreign fighters from the Syrian conflict and that this could provide the grounds for some kind of peace plan. "Perhaps this is somewhere where you can start," he said.

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