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Syria Crisis Explained

Syria Crisis

First Posted: 03/15/2012 11:13 am Updated: 03/15/2012 11:13 am

According to the United Nations, more than 7,500 people have died in Syria since the regime of President Bashar Assad launched a brutal crackdown against protesters last March.

As Syrian activists improve their techniques for transmitting photos and videos of the violence to the outside world, accounts and footage of torture, displaced families, and horrifying deaths have flooded the mainstream media. International condemnation continues to grow, yet Syria's future remains uncertain.

As Syria marks the one-year anniversary of the country's uprising, HuffPost World details some of the key players and events in Syria over the past 12 months.

Syria was a relative latecomer to the Arab Spring. On March 18, 2011, protesters gathered in the southern city of Daraa after Friday prayers. Angered by the arrest and torture of children who had spray-painted anti-government slogans on a wall in the city the month before, demonstrators voiced demands for greater freedoms and political participation.

The protests did not initially demand the resignation of President Bashar Assad. Instead, they focused on the lack of basic freedoms in the country, the monopoly of the Baath party, Syria's security state apparatus and abuses by the elite, Patrick Seale, author of the book The Struggle For Syria, explains in Foreign Policy. Yet security forces responded brutally, firing live ammunition and tear gas at the crowds and killing several protesters.

As anger over civilian deaths grew and protests spread to other cities, Assad offered a series of concessions -- officials implicated in the violence would be fired, a number of political prisoners would be released, and the country's state of emergency would be lifted. The regime maintained its innocence, however, and claimed that foreign agents were to blame for the unrest.

The spring and summer of 2011 were characterized by a steady stream of protests -- often on Fridays after prayers -- and the Syrian government's subsequent violent response to the gatherings. Security forces cracked down hard in the cities of Homs, Hama, and Latakia.

The violence reached new heights toward the end of 2011 as the conflict appeared to militarize. "You now have on average as many as forty people being killed a day. That's one dynamic; the killing has increased, particularly since the Arab League monitors arrived at the end of December," Council on Foreign Relations Middle East expert Robert M. Damin explained in January 2012.

A growing number of defectors -- loosely organized in the Free Syrian Army -- staged guerrilla attacks against security forces. In December and January, two separate bombs targeting security forces killed dozens in the Syrian capital Damascus. While the regime blamed al Qaeda, opposition forces suggested that the government may have staged the explosions in an effort to increase public support of the regime's crackdown on the opposition.


In February 2012, regime forces launched a brutal assault on the city of Homs and the rebel-held neighborhood of Baba Amr in particular. Bombs and rockets rained down on the city for weeks, killing hundreds of people -- many of them civilians. Government forces eventually retook control of the city, driving the Free Syrian army out. British photographer Paul Conroy described the siege of Homs as a "massacre." Talking to Sky News, Conroy said Syrian forces were "systematic in moving through neighborhoods with munitions that are used for battlefields." He added that "men, women and children" were "cowering in houses" and "beyond shellshock."

The regime's strategic victory in Homs was followed by attacks on the rebel strongholds of Idlib and Daraa. "Shelter is hard to find when mortars take out entire sides of buildings," Al Jazeera's Anita McNaught reported from Idlib. "Syrian army tanks and army personel carriers fire randomly and indiscriminately into the streets," she wrote.

The events in Homs illustrate the rise of sectarian conflict in Syria. Commentators have observed that the country may be headed for civil war.

The majority of Syrians belong to the Sunni Muslim community, but the country also has significant Christian, Shiia and Alawi groups. President Bashar Assad belongs to the Alawi community, a sect that split from Shia Islam and makes up about 12 percent of the population in Syria. Alawites hold many key positions in the Syrian government.

"We don't kill our people... no government in the world kills its people, unless it's led by a crazy person," Bashar Assad told ABC's Barbara Walters in an interview. Assad defiantly denied ordering a crackdown against protesters and claimed that most of the people killed were either regime supporters or security forces. Instead, Syria blames Israel and the West for the conflict, accusing "armed gangs," "terrorists" and "saboteurs" of instigating violence.

"As long as Bashar al-Assad is in power in Syria, the future of Syria is going to be unfortunately a very bloody one," former U.S. diplomat Dennis Ross told Reuters.

It is unclear who would fill the void in the event of the fall of the Assad regime. "Syria's opposition is divided," Robert M. Damin writes for the Council on Foreign Relations. "You have the Syrian National Council. You have another group called the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, which represents many of the opposition groups inside Syria. And there is a very strong division between them. They have tried to come together and overcome their differences but they have not succeeded; Syria is a very heterogeneous country."

Similarly, reports suggest the Free Syrian Army is far from a unified organization with a single command structure. According to the BBC, the FSA was formed in August 2011 by former members of the Syrian army and led by former air force colonel Riyad al-Assaad. "Col Asaad claims to have 15,000 men under his command and that soldiers are defecting every day and being assigned tasks by the FSA. However, analysts believe there may be no more than 7,000," the BBC writes in its 'Guide To The Opposition.' "It is now an umbrella group for civilians who have taken up arms and militant groups."

Al Jazeera's Nir Rosen describes the FSA as "a name endorsed and signed on to by diverse armed opposition actors throughout the country, who each operate in a similar manner and towards a similar goal, but each with local leadership."

While the U.N. estimates that 7,500 people have been killed in Syria's uprising, activists estimate that hundreds more have died.

Media access has been severely limited in Syria, Internet access is restricted, and local journalists have been suppressed as the opposition and regime present competing narratives of the state of the country.

Activists and citizen journalists have distributed hundreds of photos and videos online that often show dead or injured children and civilians, mutilated bodies, or destroyed neighborhoods. Yet verifying the content of these reports remains nearly impossible. "Plenty of information is coming out from Syria, but the difficulty we find is in verifying the information," said Soazig Dollet, head of the Middle East and North Africa desk of Reporters Without Borders to Al Akhbar. "Because of the state’s strict control of traditional media in the country, social media has become our main source of information. However, the question of who is sending out this information remains unanswered," he told the newspaper.

Reporting from Syria has proved extremely dangerous. AP photographer Rodrigo Abd recounted his time in Syria: "Explosions illuminated the night as we ran, hoping to escape Syria after nearly three weeks of covering a conflict that the government seems determined to keep the world from seeing. Tank shells slammed into the city streets behind us, snipers' bullets whizzed by our heads and the rebels escorting us were nearly out of ammunition. It seemed like a good time to get out of Syria."

While Abd safely reached Turkey, several foreign reporters did not make it out of the country alive. French TV journalist Gilles Jacquier died in January 2011 in Homs. A sniper killed activist and online journalist Rami al-Sayyed on February 22. One day later, American war correspondent Marie Colvin and French photojournalist Remi Ochlik were killed by shelling in Homs.

Most of international community's response to the bloodshed in Syria has been harsh. Barack Obama repeatedly has called on Assad to step down. U.N. chief Ban Ki-Moon has described the violence in Homs as "unacceptable before humanity." French President Nicholas Sarkozy called Assad a murderer. Turkey, once Syria's ally, has upbraided Assad, and both the U.S. and the European Union have imposed sanctions on his regime.

The first significant international attempt to end the bloodshed in Syria came from the Arab League. In November 2011, the organization of Arab states negotiated a peace plan with the Assad regime that called for an immediate end to the violence. The agreement also stipulated that monitors from the League's member states would observe the regime's compliance from inside the country. The associated monitor mission, and the Arab League peace plan, failed as the Assad regime intensified its crackdown during the observers' presence and the death toll rose dramatically.

As international pressure on the Assad regime increased and the failure of the League's monitor mission became clear, the organization presented a U.N. Security Council resolution that proposed to end the conflict through the resignation of the president. The resolution was approved by 13 of the Security Council's 15 members, but was vetoed by China and Russia. Moscow has stepped up as Syria's main supporter diplomatically, blocking any possible international action in the United Nations Security Council. The Kremlin also upheld arms deliveries to the country, arguing that Damascus needs the weapons for national defense and national security purposes.


Warning: Contains graphic content.

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  • March 2011

    Protests erupt in the Southern city of Daraa after 15 young boys were arrested for spraying anti-government slogans on a city wall.

  • April 19, 2011

    In an attempt to ease the protests, the Syrian government passes a bill that lifts Syria's 48-year emergency rule. <br> <em>In this citizen journalism image made on a mobile phone and acquired by the AP, taken Monday April 18, 2011, Syrians pray in Clock Square in the center of the city of Homs, Syria. (AP)</em>

  • April 22, 2011

    Security forces and gunmen loyal to President Bashar al-Assad kill at least 100 protesters, rights group said. <br> <em>Syrian anti-government protesters gesture as they demonstrate following Friday prayers in the central city of Homs, Syria, Friday, April 22, 2011. (AP)</em>

  • May 23, 2011

    The European Union imposed sanctions on president Bashar Assad and nine other senior government officials.<br> <em>Syrian President Bashar Assad, seen, during a meeting with his Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, unseen, at the presidency in Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2009. (AP)</em>

  • November 12, 2011

    The Arab League suspends Syria.<br> <em>General view of the Arab League emergency session on Syria at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo, Egypt, Saturday, Nov.12, 2011. (AP)</em>

  • December 7, 2011

    Assad denies ordering his troops to kill peaceful demonstrators, telling U.S. television channel ABC that only a "crazy" leader kills his own people.<br> <em>In this image from amateur video made available by the Ugarit News group on Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2011, the coffins of three protesters are carried during a march in Homs, Syria. (AP)</em>

  • December 27, 2011

    Arab League monitors said they saw "nothing frightening" during an initial visit to Homs, as 20,000 people held protests there. The monitor mission was part of an Arab League peace plan negotiated between the organization and the Assad regime to end the bloodshed in the country.<br> <em>In this image made from amateur video released by Shaam News Network and dated Wednesday Dec. 28, 2011, purports to show Arab League monitors visiting the Baba Amr area of Homs in Syria. (AP)</em>

  • January 28, 2012

    The Arab League suspends its monitoring mission while violence becomes increasingly gruesome.<br> <em>This citizen journalism image provided by the Local Coordination Committees in Syria and released on Friday Jan. 27, 2012, purports to show the bodies of five Syrian children wrapped in plastic bags, with signs in Arabic identifying them by name. (AP)</em>

  • January 31, 2012

    Government forces reasserted control over parts of Damascus as Syrian rebels withdrew, after three days of fighting that activists say killed at least 100 people.<br> <em>Syrian rebels hold their RPG and their guns as they stand on alert during a battle with the Syrian government forces, at Rastan area in Homs province, central Syria, on Tuesday Jan. 31, 2012. (AP)</em>

  • February 4, 2012

    Russia and China vetoed a resolution from the U.N. Security Council calling for Assad to step down.<br> <em>An anti-Syrian regime protester holds up a placard against Russia as others chant slogans during a midnight demonstration against Syrian President Bashar Assad, in the suburb of Kedssaya, in Damascus, Syria, on Saturday Feb. 4, 2012. (AP)</em>

  • February 16, 2012

    The U.N. General Assembly approved a resolution endorsing the Arab League plan calling for Assad to step aside.<br> <em>In this citizen journalism image provide by the Local Coordination Committees in Syria, anti-Syrian regime protesters hold an Arabic banner which reads "Homs is the city of the orphan Syrian revolution," as they march during a demonstration against Syrian President Bashar Assad, at Dael village in Daraa province, south Syria, on Friday, Feb. 17, 2012. (AP)</em>

  • February 22, 2012

    More than 80 people were killed in Homs including two foreign journalists, Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik. Syrian security forces shelled Homs for nearly a month in an attempt to drive Syrian Free Army fighters out. Activists say hundreds of people have died in the siege. <br> <em>This is an undated image of journalist Marie Colvin, made available Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2012 by the Sunday Times in London. (AP)</em>

  • February 23, 2012

    Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan was appointed U.N.-Arab League envoy to Syria. <br>

  • February 27, 2012

    Opposition fighters leave the besieged neighborhood of Baba Amr in Homs. Government troops vow to 'cleanse' the neighborhood. <i>In this Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2012 citizen journalism image provided by the Local Coordination Committees in Syria and accessed on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2012, black smoke rises into the air from Syrian government shelling, at Baba Amr neighborhood in Homs province, Syria. (AP Photo/Local Coordination Committees in Syria)</i>

  • February 28, 2012

    According to Assad, 90 percent of voters endorsed a new constitution in a referendum on February 26. The declaration was widely dismissed as a sham.<br>

  • March 8, 2012

    Syria's deputy oil minister announces his defection in a YouTube video.

  • March 14, 2012

    The Guardian obtains thousands of emails that appear to have been sent and received by Syrian president Bashar Assad and his wife Asma. <i>In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian President Bashar Assad casts his ballot next to his wife Asma at a polling station during a referendum on the new constitution, in Damascus, Syria, on Sunday Feb. 26, 2012. (AP Photo/SANA)</i>

  • March 15, 2012

    The U.N. estimates 8,000 people have been killed in the conflict. <i>In this March 9, 2012 citizen journalism image provided by the Homs City Union of The Syrian Revolution, smoke rise from a building that was shelled by the Syrian army, at Jeb al-Jandali neighborhood in Homs province, central Syria. (AP Photo/Homs City Union of The Syrian Revolution)</i>

  • March 25, 2012

    The UN raises the estimated death toll in Syria's conflict to 9,000. <i> This image made from amateur video and released by Shaam News Network Saturday, March 24, 2012, purports to show smoke rising after rockets fell in the Khaldiyeh area of Homs, Syria. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network via AP video) </i>

  • March 27, 2012

    Syria accepts a six-point peace plan offered by U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan.

  • April 9, 2012

    Syrian forces fire into a refugee camp across the Turkish border. <i>In this Monday, April 9, 2012 photo, Syrian refugees are seen in camp in Reyhanli, Turkey. (AP Photo/Germano Assad) </i>

  • April 12, 2012

    A U.N.-brokered ceasefire takes hold. Regime forces stop assaults, but fail to retreat from city centers. <i>Pro-Syrian government demonstrators hold a rally at Sabe Bahrat Square to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the foundation of the Ruling Baath Arab Socialist Party in Damascus, Syria, Saturday, April 7, 2012. (AP Photo Bassem Tellawi) </i>

  • April 14, 2012

    The U.N. Security Council approves a resolution to send observers to Syria to monitor the implementation of the ceasefire.

  • April 21, 2012

    The UN sends 300 observers to Syria for three months to monitor the "ceasefire." <em>In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, a UN observer and Syrian army officer, left, listen to Syrian citizens during their visit to the pro-Syrian regime neighborhoods, in Homs province, central Syria, on Monday April 23, 2012. (AP Photo/SANA)</em>

  • April 25, 2012

    A rocket attack on the city Hama kills 69, including some children. <em>In this image made from amateur video released by the Ugarit News and accessed Wednesday, April 25, 2012, purports to show Syrians standing in rubble of damaged buildings from Syrian forces shelling in Hama, Syria. (AP Photo/Ugarit News via AP video) </em>

  • April 27, 2012

    An explosion in the Midan neighborhood of Damascus, Syria kills 11 and injures 28. <em>Syrian investigators, right, gather next to a damaged police bus that was attacked by an explosion in the Midan neighborhood of Damascus, Syria, on Friday April 27, 2012. (AP Photo/Bassem Tellawi)</em>

  • May 7, 2012

    Parliamentary elections are held. While the regime sees the elections as an indication of its willingness to concede to democratic reforms, the opposition dismisses the elections as a sham. <em>In this photo taken during a government-organized tour, Syrian campaign workers wait outside a polling station during the parliamentary elections, in Damascus, Syria, Monday, May 7, 2012. (AP Photo/Muzaffar Salman)</em>

  • May 10, 2012

    Two explosions near a military intelligence complex in Damascus killed 55. <em>Syrian inspectors investigate the crater in front of a damaged military intelligence building where two bombs exploded, at Qazaz neighborhood in Damascus, Syria, on Thursday May 10, 2012. (AP Photo/Bassem Tellawi)</em>

  • May 25, 2012

    A massacre occurs in the village of Houla, where 108 people were killed. Activists blamed the regime for the massacre, although the Syrian government denies all responsibility. <em>This frame grab made from an amateur video provided by Syrian activists on Monday, May 28, 2012, purports to show the massacre in Houla on May 25 that killed more than 100 people, many of them children. (AP Photo/Amateur Video via AP video)</em>

  • More explosions in Hama kill scores more. <em>In this citizen journalism image provided by Sham News Network SNN and according to them, purports to show the bodies of Syrian children in Mazraat al-Qubair on the outskirts of Hama, central Syria, Thursday, June 7, 2012. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network, SNN)</em>

  • June 12, 2012

    The head of the UN peacekeeping operations, Herve Ladsous, calls the Syria crisis a "civil war." <em>A Nepalese human rights activist holds a placard against the human rights violation in Syria as they take part in a protest organized by the Amnesty International outside the United Nations office in Katmandu, Nepal, Wednesday, June 13, 2012. (AP Photo/Niranjan Shrestha)</em>

  • June 22, 2012

    Syria shoots down Turkish warplane, for which Syrian President Bashar Assad expressed regret. <em>In this April 29, 2010 file photo, a Turkish pilot salutes before take-off at an air base in Konya, Turkey. (AP Photo/File)</em>

  • June 26, 2012

    Assad announces that his country is in a state of war. <em>In this image taken from TV Syria's president Bashar al-Assad speaks during an interview in Tehran, Iran, Thursday June 28, 2012. (AP Photo/IRIB TV via APTN) </em>

  • July 6, 2012

    General Manaf Tlas, son of Mustafa Tlas and a member of Assad's inner circle, defects and flees to France. <em>In this Feb. 22, 1971 file photo, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mustafa Tlas (front row, 2nd from right) and Air Force General Naji Jamil (1st right) surrounded by other members of Parliament on election day in Damascus, Syria. (AP Photo, File)</em>

  • July 11, 2012

    Nawaf al-Fares, Assad's ambassador to Iraq, defects and joins the Syrian opposition. <em>In this Sept. 16, 2008 file photo provided by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Nawaf Fares, left, is sworn in as Syria's ambassador to Iraq before Syrian President Bashar Assad, right, and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem in Damascus. (AP Photo/SANA, File)</em>

  • July 12, 2012

    Up to 200 people, most of them civilians, are killed in the village of Tremseh. The massacre is condemned by the international community. <em>In this citizen journalism image provided by Shaam News Network SNN, taken on Saturday, July 14, 2012, a woman holds a child in front of their destroyed home in Tremseh, Syria about 15 kilometers (9 miles) northwest of the central city of Hama. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network, SNN)</em>

  • July 18, 2012

    Former Defense Minister Hassan Turkmani, Syrian Defense Minister Gen. Dawoud Rajha, and Bashar Assad's brother-in-law Major General Assef Shawkat are killed in a bomb attack on Damascus. <em>This undated combo image made of 3 photos released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, shows former defense minister Hassan Turkmani, left, Syrian Defense Minister Gen. Dawoud Rajha, center, and Bashar Assad's brother-in-law Major General Assef Shawkat, right, in Damascus, Syria. (AP Photo/SANA)</em>

  • July 12, 2012

    Activists say more than a hundred people were killed in the village of Tremseh, near the city of Hama. <em>In this citizen journalism image provided by Shaam News Network SNN, taken on Saturday, July 14, 2012, a woman holds a child in front of their destroyed home in Tremseh, Syria about 15 kilometers (9 miles) northwest of the central city of Hama. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network, SNN)</em>

  • August 6, 2012

    Syria's prime minister Riyad Hijab defects and flees to Jordan. <em>Riad Hijab, Syria's defected former prime minister, speaks at a press conference at the Hyatt Hotel in Amman, Jordan, Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2012. (AP photo/Mohammad Hannon)</em>

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Filed by Eline Gordts  |