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From a Democratic Uprising to Full-Scale War Next

The conflict in Syria has displaced more than 11 million people. —Lucian Perkins for the US Holocaust Memorial Museum

Since its outbreak in March 2011, the conflict in Syria has cost the lives of more than 400,000 people, displaced millions more, and involved numerous atrocities and crimes against humanity. Seven decades after the Holocaust and despite promises of Never Again, a regime is targeting its own people while the international community stands by.

“The result of this conflict is a humanitarian catastrophe of staggering proportions.”

The conflict is not simply a civil war between opposing armed forces. What began as a democratic uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has transformed into a violent struggle between local, national, regional, and international forces, in which the Syrian government, extremist groups, and outside actors perpetrate atrocities against civilians as a systematic strategy of war.

Members of Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority have borne the brunt of the Syrian government’s campaign of mass atrocities, while some of the forces opposing the regime have committed atrocities against Syrian civilians. In addition, the self-proclaimed Islamic State, which since the spring of 2013 has been battling government forces in Syria and Iraq as well as some of the Syrian opposition forces, is waging a campaign of persecution and horrific brutality against religious communities and others who do not ascribe to its brand of Islamist extremism.

The uprising’s transformation into a sectarian conflict in 2012 saw a dramatic rise in the civilian death toll. The risk that mass atrocities against civilians will continue increases as this violence, especially by government forces, becomes more widespread and systematic.

The result of this conflict is a humanitarian catastrophe of staggering proportions. Every day, Syrian men, women, and children are falling victim to the constant bombardment of their neighborhoods, schools, markets, and hospitals; to starvation, exposure, preventable diseases, and lack of medical care; and to torture, rape, and killings. The rapidly rising number of Syrian refugees is over 4.8 million, and another 6.6 million are internally displaced.

The Syrian people are not the only ones endangered by the conflict. The escalation of the fighting has exacerbated political and military tensions throughout the region. These tensions, combined with the burden of caring for millions of refugees, threaten to destabilize neighboring countries and lead to wider war. Syria’s humanitarian crisis also has grave implications for security and other interests throughout the world.