Manu Brabo, File, Associated Press
BEIRUT — Syria's conflict was sparked by an act of brutality — the detention and torture of schoolchildren who spray-painted anti-government graffiti in a southern city. In the three years since, the civil war has evolved into one of the most savage conflicts in decades.
The atrocities have been relentless. Protesters gunned down in the streets. An opposition singer whose vocal chords were carved out. Beheadings and mass sectarian killings. Barrels full of explosives dropped from warplanes onto bakeries and homes.
It will be hard enough to find a political solution to Syria's crisis at an international peace conference convening in Switzerland on Wednesday, given the vast differences between the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad and the opposition. But in a nation drowning in blood, reconciliation and justice over the atrocities seem even more distant.
"The ethical and moral fabric of this society has been stretched to beyond breaking point," said Amr al-Azm, a U.S.-based Syrian opposition figure and professor at Shawnee State University in Ohio. "For a country to recover from such a traumatic rupture of the very glue that holds it together is not easy."
In the latest sign of the brutality, three prominent international war-crimes experts said they had received a huge cache of photographs documenting the killing of some 11,000 detainees by Syrian authorities.
David Crane, one of the three experts, told The Associated Press that the cache provides strong evidence for charging Assad and others for crimes against humanity — "but what happens next will be a political and diplomatic decision."
In the 55,000 digital images, smuggled out by a defector from Syria's military police, the victims' bodies showed signs of torture, including ligature marks around the neck and marks of beatings, while others show extreme emaciation suggestive of starvation. Syrian authorities photographed each body to show those who ordered their deaths that the executions had been carried out, according to the report, first reported by the British newspaper The Guardian and CNN on Monday..
"The last time you see this type of industrialized killing with this type of records keeping, you have to go back to Nuremberg," Crane said, referring to the post-World War II trials of Nazi atrocities.
"It's chilling; it's direct evidence to show systematic killing of civilians," said Crane, former chief prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said Tuesday that the United States has focused too strongly on bringing the warring parties into peace talks at the expense of putting "real pressure" on the Assad government to end atrocities and hold to account those responsible. The group also accused Russia and China of shielding their ally Syria from concrete action at the United Nations.
"The mass atrocities being committed in Syria should be a parallel focus of the peace process," Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, told reporters in Berlin Tuesday.
For Syria watchers, the descent into the abyss was not inevitable, but the result of conscious decisions by a multitude of players.
"From day one, there was a level of violence used initially by the government in its suppression that was unprecedented," said Nadim Houry, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division. "Since the Balkan wars and Rwanda in the 1990s, we have rarely seen a conflict with that many people killed in such a short amount of time."
More than 130,000 people have died in Syria's conflict, and more than a quarter of the population of 23 million now live as refugees, either within Syria or in neighboring countries. Fighters who took up weapons against Assad have turned their guns on each other, trapping ordinary Syrians in the violence of two parallel wars.
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