A country caught up in chaos - the latest report from the UN inquiry commission on Syria has listed many crimes against humanity. But nothing is being done. So what purpose does documenting them serve?
The conflict in Syria has taken yet another violent turn. Animosities are being pursued with more brutality than ever, and they are threatening to drag the entire region into a vortex of violence. That's the conclusion of the latest report from the United Nations Human Rights Council's commission of inquiry on Syria.
Based on interviews with witnesses and victims, the commission - made up of four independent international law experts - reconstructed what has happened in the past months in Syria. But as in the past, the government in Damascus would not allow commission members to enter Syria.
The report gave a bleak image of the situation during the period in question - mid-May to mid-July - but it has itself been overtaken by new realities, according to commission president Paulo Pinheiro. "The suspected use of chemical weapons in August has brought new urgency to the discussion about an appropriate international reaction," he said.
Pinheiro also warned against allowing the outrage over the alleged use of sarin gas to conceal other possible war crimes and human rights abuses in Syria. "Most of the dead and injured are down to the illegal attacks with conventional weapons," he said.
As for the use of poison gas on August 21 in the eastern suburbs of Damascus, the commission urged caution. The commission experts clearly did not want to pre-empt the final report from the UN chemical weapons inspectors, expected to be released in the coming days.
Human Rights Watch, for its part, is fairly certain that the massacre was perpetrated by President Bashar al-Assad's regime. The organization's crisis expert Peter Boukaert said several signs pointed to the government's responsibility. The use of chemical weapons fit a pattern of strategic escalation from government troops.
"Step by step, the Syrian government has used ever more dangerous weapons against its own people," he said in Geneva. "First they fired rifles at demonstrators. Then they used heavy artillery, and then they dropped bombs from planes."
After that, he said there came cluster bombs, then incendiary bombs, and finally rockets, with which entire neighborhoods were leveled. "Now we're seeing the use of chemical weapons."
'Everyone is bad'
The commission also made a fastidious distinction between massacres and war crimes perpetrated by the government, and those committed by the rebel forces. But the lists on both sides are fairly similar. Crimes committed by all the conflicting parties include murder, torture, sexual violence, hostage-taking. Commission member Carla del Ponte said the extent of the atrocities in the Syrian conflict as "unbelievable."
"Normally you draw a distinction between and good and bad political forces. But I am telling you: there are no good forces here. They are all bad," she declared shortly before the report was published. "That means that not only are the government troops responsible for the crimes. The rebels are committing serious and unbelievable atrocities."
As chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, she is familiar with such crimes, but she said that what is happening in Syria at the moment breaks all the old boundaries. "I have never seen anything like it," she said. "I have never seen torture methods like those used in Syria - not even in the Balkan wars."
Call for more reports
The commission has now been documenting the human rights abuses in Syria for two years, but can do nothing but watch the situation worsen week after week. Previous reports have done nothing to deter the perpetrators, the commissioners concluded.
And yet, Boukaert added, the commission must continue its work. Though the inquiry's reports are no substitute for decisive action by the international community, they serve as an alarm signal.
"If there is ever a clear and convincing argument for the necessity of a stronger engagement by the international community in order to end the killing in Syria, then it is the record of the shocking crimes that the commission is making," the Human Rights Watch spokesman said.