Last month, an armed Tunisian man stormed into a makeshift hospital in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. He pulled a wounded man in agony from the operation table to the street and chopped his head off without any hesitation.
Kids playing in the street paused to watch him sway a head dripping of blood in celebration.
Footage of the young Tunisian was widely circulated online and the story was reported by different international media outlets. The member of the al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) mistakenly thought the man moaning from pain was mumbling slogans chanted by Shia fighters, who have been fighting on the side of President Bashar al-Assad against rebels.
But in fact, the beheaded man had been fighting against Assad.
What was especially remarkable about the horrific incident is the presence of dozens of doctors, nurses, his comrades and civilians watching it transpire. No one tried to stop it. They were all scared of the young foreigner.
Back in 2011, many Syrians felt empowered as they took to the streets to challenge the Assad regime, breaking walls of fear that the dynasty constructed over 40 years.
But by 2013, new walls of fear were being constructed. The self-declared jihadist group ISIL, one of the most powerful forces to emerge from the conflict with hundreds of foreigners among its ranks, has been viciously punishing Syrians who challenge its authority. Other rebel groups have also shown they are capable of committing their own share of atrocities, cracking down on residents living in areas under their control.
Meanwhile, villages and towns continued to be pulverised by regime planes and tanks, as Assad forces attempted to regain lost territory in the east and north and consolidate power over contested areas around the capital.
Free ride to kill
This brutal war has experienced new levels of well-documented horror in 2013.
Both victims and the perpetrators recorded the atrocities. As more videos emerged, the international community’s inaction continued to give Syrians the message that their human worth is insignificant. The perpetrators have a free ride to kill and the victims have no place to go for justice.
|Dozens of people, including children, were massacred in a village outside Banias city last May [AP]
Videos showed scores of bodies belonging to executed men floating in an Aleppo river (January and March 2013), shattered bodies of students killed by regime air strikes at Aleppo university (January), bodies of dead children piled following a massacre by Assad loyalists outside the coastal city of Banias (May), a fighter biting the lung of his enemy (May), and residents shaking and foaming at the mouth following a chemical attack (August).
Despite outcry over chemical weapons, most Syrians were dying at the hands of traditional weapons: long range missiles, barrel bombs and cluster bombs. In August, when hundreds of people died after being gassed with chemical weapons, the US threatened to strike regime military installations. A few weeks later, however, under a deal between the US and Russia, the international community decided to destroy the country’s chemical stockpile.
In December, a 10-day air offensive by Syria's regime against rebel areas of Aleppo killed more than 400 people, including many children.
In Homs, thousands of residents continue to be trapped since 2012, lacking food and basic medical supplies despite two years of near constant bombardment. Thousands of others remain in Ghouta at the outskirts of Damascus, where people are literally dropping dead from hunger.
Calls by human rights organisations to create humanitarian corridors and no-fly-zones went unanswered.
In much of the regime held-areas across the country, electricity and water have become a luxury and anyone suspected of supporting the opposition continues to face arrest. Names of people dying under torture in prison continue to emerge every day.
In 2013, Syria also became a hub for self-declared global jihadists and sectarian interests.
Sunni fighters from across the world flooded Syria to fight for the opposition. Shias from Lebanon, Iran, Pakistan and other countries arrived to support Assad, helping the regime win major battles in the suburbs of Homs (June 2013) and the suburbs of Damascus (November 2013).
There is no end to the war in sight, especially as different international actors continue to fund the competing sides of the conflict to keep a rough balance of power. Those same actors agree that there could only be a political solution to the conflict.
A peace conference in Geneva is scheduled for January 2014. Ahead of the talks, the warring parties are escalating the violence to improve their negotiating position.
Syrians cannot afford another failed diplomatic attempt to end the conflict. More than 126,000 people have been killed and nearly nine million uprooted from their homes, mostly children.
But the war has also a cost that cannot be quantified.
Those children who watched the bloodied head in Aleppo will never be the same again.
Follow Basma Atassi on twitter: @basma_