But it’s worth noting that they’ve made steady progress in a task that’s already proven perilous. Inspectors started their work on sites in government-held areas where fighting is relatively calm. But even there, mortar shells landed near their Damascus hotel, killing an 11-year-old girl. To finish the job they’ll likely have to cross rebel lines; Friday saw air raids and armed clashes near one chemical weapons facility in Safira, with no sign that either side would respect calls for a cease-fire.
Among other flashpoints, in the past week the fighting has encompassed rebel-on-rebel clashes in Aleppo, which killed 50 people, and the regime capture of two rebel-held districts south of Damascus. The latter left 70 people dead and gave the Assad government better control of supply lines from Jordan.
With the pace of war left unabated, the U.N. predicts that 4 million more Syrians will flee their homes in 2014, half of them refugees pouring out of the country’s borders.
The regime and al-Qaida-linked rebels have now been accused of crimes against humanity, with calls for justice but none in sight. In all cases civilians have borne the brunt of the violence.
Human Rights Watch issued a report accusing al-Qaida-linked groups of a massacre in August, an indiscriminate attack that killed nearly 200 people in Alawite coastal areas. In addition to the loss of life, it was noteworthy in marking an escalating sectarian revenge cycle – the exchange of atrocities between Shiites on one side and Sunni extremists on the other. Before the war, Syrians weren’t prone to seeing the world through a Sunni-Shiite lens – they were believers and beneficiaries of a diverse religious society. But now that sectarian dividing line has come to define a brutal conflict, tearing the fabric of a unified Syrian identity.
To fix it, Syria will have to push out an al-Qaida presence and the extremist ideology that has spread with it. There is a civilian backlash against extremism – the Economist holds out the possibility of a popular, moderate uprising against al-Qaida groups, akin to the “sahwa” movement in Iraq. But as of now there are factors working in al-Qaida’s favor – including the fact that it now controls Syrian oil fields, selling crude to fund its operations. That makes for an independent revenue stream, in a country where many people are now impoverished and desperate for aid.