100,000 Are Dead in Syria, and “Helping” Will Probably Kill More

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A man mourns at the body of a member of the Free Syrian Army who died during clashes, at Bustan al Qasr cemetery in Aleppo, March 1, 2013.

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon made a grim announcement on Thursday: the death toll from Syria’s civil war, by the U.N.’s count, has now surpassed 100,000. It’s a ghastly, horrible number. But don’t be surprised if it doubles. Syria’s war is getting worse, drawing more combatants and weapons, and whatever good options might once have existed for halting it are probably no longer practical.

The Obama administration is still wading carefully into the conflict. Secretary of State John Kerry met in New York yesterday with Syrian opposition leaders, whose leader called the situation “desperate.” On Wednesday came word that Barack Obama’s plan to arm Syria’s rebels–announced weeks ago, then delayed by Congress–will finally be moving forward. But there’s almost no chance of stopping the bloodshed before many, many more people die.

It’s a terrible contradiction surrounding the debate over Syria that most of the options for “doing something” about the carnage there will lead to more deaths. Whatever the strategic merits of arming the rebels, for instance, it’s pretty clear that sending more guns into the country will claim more lives. There’s even a school of thought that the best option, from an American perspective, would be a long stalemate–one that steadily bleeds both the Sunni Islamists within the rebel forces and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah fighters on whom the Assad regime is increasingly relying, along with expensive support from Tehran.

Some options do have a more humanitarian focus than pumping armaments into the hands of the purported good guys fighting the regime. Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former top Obama State Department official, has proposed the establishment of “no-kill zones… to protect all Syrians regardless of creed, ethnicity or political allegiance” in areas near Syria’s borders. But even Slaughter’s plan would involve sending more weapons into the conflict, allowing Syrian rebel fighters to enforce those zones. And talk of a broader “no-fly zone” established by the U.S. military seems dead for now, especially after Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey’s recent estimate that creating one could involve “hundreds” of aircraft and might cost $1 billion per month.

These are some of the reasons Kerry reiterated his view Thursday that “there is no military solution to Syria.” The Obama administration’s endgame involves forcing Bashar al-Assad to the negotiating table, ideally in a position of military weakness that will force him to make major concessions–probably including his own exit from the country. But reaching that point will require the rebels to make more gains, which requires more fighting, which means more people dead. Onward we go towards 200,000.