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With no clear alliances or front lines, the civilian body count in Syria is bound to increase

On Sunday, Syrian government warplanes attacked a busy marketplace in Douma, a rebel-held suburb of the capital city Damascus. At least 100 people were killed and more than 200 injured, making it one of the deadliest single air strikes since the conflict began nearly five years ago. Activists have described it as a deliberate massacre.

The United Nations condemned the air strike. The organisation's humanitarian chief, Stephen O'Brien, told reporters that the attacks were "unlawful, unacceptable, and must stop", but his words fell on deaf ears. The following day, Syrian jets again pounded Douma. The suburb lies a few kilometres away from the countryside in east Ghouta where a chemical weapons attack took place in August 2013. Ever since then, Douma and other towns nearby have been subject to near-constant bombardment. The area is a stronghold of the rebel group Jaysh Al-Islam, which makes it a prime target (the Syrian government claimed that the airstrikes were targeting a rebel base). Its location – not far from central Damascus, the seat of power – also marks it out. According to Amnesty International, there have been at least 60 airstrikes on eastern Ghouta in the first six months of this year alone. More than 500 people have been killed. The human rights group has accused the Syrian government of war crimes against the people of this region.

The conflict thus far has been characterised by a gross disregard for civilian life on all sides: at least 250,000 people have been killed since 2011, and up to a million injured. This has only worsened as the Syrian civil war has become increasingly messy and complicated. It began as a stand-off between pro-democracy protesters and the dictatorship of Bashar Al-Assad. Gradually, it has splintered into a series of micro-wars, with extremist Islamist groups battling against moderate rebels, and the regime forces fighting both. Pro- and anti-Assad fighters and jihadists from all over the region and, indeed, the world have flooded into Syria to fight in this increasingly complex war and the series of smaller conflicts within it. As more groups enter the fray, solutions have been harder to identify. Continued violence and stalemate means that civilians have faced further risk to their lives and less protection.

Survivors of the recent attacks in Douma have told international media that they believe that the global focus on Daesh has meant that other atrocities – such as those perpetrated by the Syrian government – are being ignored. International powers have focused their attention increasingly on Daesh, which occupies much of eastern Syria and parts of Iraq. The militant group has also recently established a base in Palmyra, which is to the north-east of Damascus.

"Yesterday's air strikes, following its other recent market bombings and attacks on medical facilities, demonstrate the regime's disregard for human life," a spokesman for the US state department said on Tuesday. "As we have said, Assad has no legitimacy to lead the Syrian people." The position that a political transition away from the Assad regime is necessary for peace is one that has been taken consistently by the US and European powers since the beginning of the conflict. However, this has not been matched by action, and the rhetoric has been toned down gradually as Islamist militant groups such as Al-Nusra Front and Daesh became more prevalent. Syrian forces have launched bombing raids against Daesh, as has the US, putting the two in an uneasy alliance.

The toning down of western calls for Assad to step down is the most obvious example of the difficulty posed by the multifaceted nature of the Syrian conflict. There are no clear alliances, or even clear front lines for the battles. The west is no longer comfortable advocating strongly for the removal of Assad when it is preoccupied with fighting Daesh and hampered by the fear of what would fill the power vacuum created by the president stepping down.

Meanwhile, many analysts believe that Syria is moving towards a de facto partition, as regime forces – depleted by years of conflict and wracked by large-scale desertions – cede ground. In rebel-held areas, services are collapsing and civilians face not only the threat of airstrikes and violence, but also the additional horrors of starvation and insufficient medical care. The European Union recently described Syria as "the world's largest humanitarian crisis." The tragedy is that as international powers scramble to work out where they stand and the country descends further into anarchy, the civilian body count will keep increasing.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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