Syria has marked the fourth anniversary of an anti-government uprising that led to years of internal fighting in which the country has been carved up between government forces, jihadist militants, Kurdish fighters and rebels of various persuasions.
On March 15, 2011, anti-government protesters in Syria took to the streets, inspired by similar revolts in Egypt and Tunisia as part of the Arab Spring.
The brutal government crackdown on the initially peaceful demonstrations, however, eventually led to an increasing militarization of the uprising, spawning today's brutal conflict.
The UK-based activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights now estimates that more than 215,000 people have been killed as a result of the fighting, nearly a third of them civilians and including more than 10,000 children. The fate of tens of thousands of missing people remains unknown, meaning that the true death toll is likely to be even higher.
The UN refugee agency UNHCR says that Syria is now "the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era," with around 60 percent of the population now living in poverty and the country's infrastructure in disarray.
Some 7.5 million people have been displaced internally, while more than 3.9 million Syrians have fled to neighboring countries.
In view of the humanitarian crisis, aid groups recently accused the UN Security Council of complete failure because of its inability to protect civilians in Syria.
Torture and barrel bombs
The Observatory has also noted horrific human rights abuses, saying that 13,000 people had been tortured to death in government custody since the uprising began.
President Bashar al-Assad has clung to power despite the insurgency against him, with his regime accused by many of using chemical weapons against its own people.
Human rights groups have also condemned the government's documented use of crude barrel bombs as its forces move to encircle rebels in the northern city of Aleppo. Assad denies that such bombs have been employed.
The conflict has been further complicated by the jihadist "Islamic State" (IS) group, which has been fighting both anti-government rebels and Assad loyalists as it continues its campaign to establish a caliphate across the Middle East.
The group has captured swathes of territory both in Syria and Iraq.
Last year, the United States assembled an international coalition to carry out airstrikes on jihadist positions in both countries. In Syria, Kurdish fighters backed by coalition air support have recaptured some territory from the jihadists, but the group continues to wield considerable power.
The fight against IS has drawn international attention away from the alleged abuses of the Assad regime, with a noticeable decrease of calls from abroad for him to resign.
Diplomats say international peace proposals for the country are increasingly envisaging a future political role for the Syrian president.
In an interview aired on Sunday, US Secretary of State John Kerry said that Washington would have to negotiate with Assad to find a political solution to the conflict.
Kerry said the US, which has been helping lead international efforts to resolve the crisis, was "pushing... to get him [Assad] to come" and negotiate the implementation of agreements reached between the warring parties at UN-sponsored talks in Geneva, Switzerland, in 2012.
However, all international efforts, including a second round of UN-mediated talks in Switzerland in 2013, have so far failed to bring about a peaceful resolution to the conflict.
tj/sb (dpa, AFP)