Syria death toll probably at 70,000, U.N. human rights official says

New Syrian refugees arrive at the Za'atari refugee camp on February 1, 2013 in Mafrq, Jordan.

Story highlights

  • U.N. high commissioner for human rights said a month ago that death toll was 60,000
  • Syria's civil war has raged since March 2011, partly inspired by Arab Spring protests
  • In January, U.N. envoy urged the United Nations Security Council to act

The death toll in Syria is probably now approaching 70,000, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said Tuesday.

In early January, Pillay said that 60,000 people in Syria had died, a figure that she called "truly shocking." She blamed the international community for failing to act.

At that time, CNN tried to put the number in perspective. Sixty thousand people is roughly the population of Terre Haute, Indiana; or Cheyenne, Wyoming. It's how many people would fit in Dodger Stadium, and it's more than the 50,000-plus U.S. combat deaths in Vietnam.

The war in Syria has been raging since March 2011 when protesters, partly inspired by Arab Spring uprisings in the region, began demonstrating for more freedom. That movement quickly morphed into a movement against President Bashar al-Assad, who was appointed president by Syria's rubber-stamp parliament in 2000 after his father died.

The largely amorphous group of anti-al-Assad rebels who have been trying to oust al-Assad, the Free Syrian Army, has had many casualties, but many innocent civilians have died.

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No area of the country seems safe. The opposition activist organization Local Coordination Committees of Syria (LCCS) said 136 people were killed in war-related violence across Syria on Tuesday, including 47 in Damascus and its suburbs, and 32 in Aleppo. CNN cannot independently verify those figures.

In mid-January, Aleppo University was the scene of horrific violence. One student described to CNN his dizzying attempt to help another after bombs exploded at the school, saying that he reached out his hand to help only to wind up grasping a fellow student's severed hand.

Every day looks the same in Syria. Al-Assad's forces bombard neighborhoods. Body counts are recorded by anti-government rebels and activists.

United Nations envoys -- two of them so far -- have tried to negotiate to end to the fighting.

In late January, envoy Lakhdar Brahimi tried to persuade the U.N. Security Council to do something.

"Syria is being destroyed bit by bit and, in destroying Syria, the region is being pushed into a situation that is extremely bad and extremely important for the entire world," he said after meeting with the body in private.

Throughout the war, there have been several instances in which observers have surmised that the bloodshed might be near an end.

They've been wrong every time. Al-Assad has made those predictions seem even more foolish when he's given speeches in which he says all his government is doing is fighting back "terrorists."

There are Syrians who still very much support al-Assad, too.

For example, in a recent CNN exclusive, CNN's Frederik Pleitgen reported from Saidnaya, a predominantly Christian town outside Damascus that is standing firmly behind al-Assad.

"I don't know why, but we love the president very much," said Housam Azar, a Saidnaya resident and organizer of the town's militia. "Sure, there have been mistakes, but we love the president a lot."