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Syria in crisis

Latest Events: Gunmen shot and killed Mohammed Osama Laham, brother of Parliament Speaker Jihad Laham, as he drove to work in the capital Damascus on Nov. 6, the state-run SANA news agency said. It was the latest in a wave of assassinations targeting Syrian officials, army officers and other prominent supporters of President Bashar Assad’s regime.

In another blow to the regime, Turkey’s state-run news agency reported Nov. 6 that seven Syrian generals defected to Turkey. The news came a day after some of the most intense fighting in Damascus in months as rebels wage a civil war to unseat Assad.

The main Syrian opposition bloc broadened its ranks on Nov. 5 to include more activists and political groups from inside the country, officials said, in the face of intense U.S. pressure to create a more representative and cohesive leadership that could work with the West. The decision by the Syrian National Council on the second day of a five-day SNC conference in Doha appeared to be an attempt to deflect at least some of the international criticism that has labeled the group ineffective and incapable of forming a united front with other opposition forces.

On Nov. 1, China called for a phased-in cease-fire and negotiations on a gradual political transition to end the bloodshed. Alongside Russia, China has steadfastly blocked any outside intervention that could force Assad from power. The four-point proposal issued by the Foreign Ministry stopped short of calling for Assad’s ouster and omitted mention of any measures to compel compliance.

A CBC News team travelling in Syria in early November reported that Aleppo, one of the oldest cities in the world, is gradually being reduced to rubble. Canadian doctors are among those treating the wounded in the Aleppo region, and training local medical workers.

About 150 members of the Syrian opposition met in Turkey Oct. 29 to plan for a post-Assad future, discussing the immediate challenges of managing parts of the northern Idlib province and sections of the city of Aleppo. Delegates to the meeting included members of Syrian rebel groups as well as the country’s Kurdish minority. Long-term planning will focus on constitutional and legal reform, laws on elections and political parties, and how to build a modern national army.

More than 500 people were killed during the four-day truce period from Oct. 26 to 29 that had been negotiated by the UN to coincide with the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, one of the holiest periods on the Muslim calendar. Syrian warplanes bombarded rebel targets in the suburbs of Damascus on Oct. 29 in what activists said was one of the most intense air raid campaigns around the capital since the uprising began 19 months ago.
Report from Aleppo

Since armed opponents of the Assad regime stormed into Aleppo in August, even the great heritage sites of this wealthy metropolis have been badly damaged

But merely getting to Aleppo is a feat in itself, writes Nelofer Pazira.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon expressed deep disappointment at the collapse of the ceasefire, calling for an immediate halt to the fighting and saying other countries and the United Nations need to do more to help.

Syrians took to the streets for the largest anti-regime protests in months in several cities Oct. 26, taking advantage a lull in fighting as a cease-fire took effect at the start of a Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha, or the Feast of the Sacrifice. But despite the truce negotiated by Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN envoy to Syria, scattered violence including battles over a northern military base and a Damascus suburb illustrated the difficulty of maintaining even a limited truce.

SYRIA CIVIL WAR Key facts, important players in Syria’s bloody conflict

Syrian opposition figures called for the overthrow of President Bashar Assad at a rare meeting of anti-government groups held Sept. 23 in the government-controlled capital Damascus.

Rebels fighting Assad typically dismiss the so-called “internal opposition” as too lenient on the Syrian dictator. The strong statements from the 16 parties in the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change in Syria may be aimed at gaining credibility among Syrians who despise the regime but are weary of an uprising that has since devolved into a bloody civil war.

The leaders of the rebel Free Syrian Army said Sept. 21 that they had moved their command centre from Turkey to Syria with the aim of uniting rebels and speeding up the fall of President Bashar Assad’s regime.
Casualties and refugees

Syria’s violence crossed an important symbolic threshold July 15 as the international Red Cross formally declared the conflict a civil war, a status with implications for potential war crimes prosecutions.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Nov. 1 that more than 36,000 Syrians have been killed during the uprising against the Assad regime that begain in March 2011.

A rising tide of civilians fleeing Syria’s violence is hitting four neighbouring countries — Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. More than 100,000 Syrians, mostly women and children, have sought refuge in Turkey since the start of the conflict.

A video circulated Nov. 2 appeared to show Syrian rebels killing a group of captured soldiers, spraying them with bullets as they lie on the ground. Human rights groups said the gunmen may have committed a war crime.

A report released Sept. 25 by the U.K. charity Save the Children compiled first-hand accounts from Syrian refugee children who fled the war-torn country who say they were subjected to atrocities. A UN report released June 11 includes Syrian government forces and their allied shabiha militias for the first time on a list of 52 governments and armed groups that recruit, kill or sexually attack children in armed conflicts.

Among the dead is 13-year-old Hamza al-Khatib, who became a symbol of the government’s brutality. The young boy was picked up by Syrian security forces during a protest in May 2011, and his grotesquely mutilated body was later returned to his parents’ home.

Human Rights Watch said July 11 it had found evidence that the Syrian government had fired cluster bombs. The Syrian government also faced allegations July 3 of systematic detainment and torture of its citizens, in a report by the group Human Rights Watch based on more than 200 interviews with former detainees and defectors.
Political Situation

National: Rebels are trying to oust President Bashar Assad, a former ophthalmologist who assumed the Syrian presidency after the death of his father, Hafez, in 2000.

The Assad family has governed Syria since 1971, when Hafez al-Assad seized power in a bloodless coup. The younger Assad was thought to be more reform-minded than his father, but the brutal military response to the current uprising suggests that Bashar will do everything in his power to maintain the status quo.

The ruling Ba’ath Party promoted a socialist and Arab nationalist vision. Syria was seen primarily as a secular state where religious minorities were tolerated prior to the uprising, but the government did not tolerate dissent.
Quick facts

Population: 22,517,750 (July 2010 estimate)

Area: 185,180 sq. km

Borders: Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey

Languages: Arabic is the official language, but Kurdish, Armenian, Aramaic and Circassian are widely used. French and English are used to a lesser extent.

Religion: 74 per cent Sunni Muslim; 16 per cent Alawite, Druze and other Muslim sects; 10 per cent Christian.

Government: Republic under authoritarian regime.

Syrians cast ballots May 7, 2012, in parliamentary elections billed by the regime as key to President Bashar Assad’s political reforms, but the opposition dismissed the vote as a sham meant to preserve his autocratic rule. The elections are the first under a new constitution, adopted in February 2012. The charter for the first time allowed the formation of political parties to compete with Assad’s ruling Baath party and limited the president to two seven-year terms.

Opposition: Syrian opposition groups, inspired by revolutions in places like Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, began to hold protests in March 2011 in cities like Daraa, Homs, Hama and Latakia. The demonstrations began after several children in the city of Daraa were arrested and tortured while in custody for spraying anti-regime graffiti on the walls of their schools.

Government forces responded to the protests with a number of tactics, from shutting off water and cutting food supplies to deploying tanks and snipers to drive people off the streets.

The opposition is fractured among various groups, the largest of which is the Syrian National Council, which operates from outside Syria and comprises numerous factions. Its armed contingent is a loose affiliation of armed opponents of the regime and defectors from the Syrian military called the Free Syrian Army.

Syria’s prime minister, Riad Hijab, fled with his family to Jordan on Aug. 6, 2012, and joined the rebels. Hijab is the highest-ranking government official to defect, emboldening the opposition and raising fresh questions about the regime’s ability to survive the civil war.

Syria’s ambassador to Iraq defected to the opposition on July 10, 2012. Appointed to the Baghdad post four years ago, Nawaf Fares was the first Syrian ambassador to Iraq in 26 years. Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass, an Assad confidant and son of a former defense minister, fled Syria the previous week.
UN observers

The Security Council decided Aug. 16 to let the UN monitoring mission’s mandate expire, but said it will back a new civilian office to support the UN and the Arab League in their efforts to end the conflict that’s killed more than 32,000 people.

The initial eight-member team of unarmed international observers arrived in Syria April 16, 2012. On April 22, the Security Council voted to expand the number of UN observers from 30 to 300.

On July 20, the Security Council had unanimously approved an extension of the UN observer force in Syria for a final 30 days, reducing the number of observers in the country to 150 from 300. The resolution passed after Russia joined the 14 other council members in supporting a revised British text. Russia and China had vetoed a Western-backed UN resolution on July 19 threatening non-military sanctions against Syria.
Arab League monitors

About 60 observers from the Arab League were allowed into Syria from Dec. 27, 2011, to Jan. 19, 2012, but were prevented from visiting many of the most troubled spots and from monitoring the situation independently. The CBC’s Susan Ormiston reported from Damascus on Jan. 11, 2012, that, “there is a tension and conflict between the Syrian government and the Arab League monitors, and the opposition hasn’t been very satisfied with their work, either.”

The League withdrew its monitors from Syria on Jan. 28, 2012, because of the increasing violence and obstruction from the regime.
International reaction

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said in remarks published Sept. 21, 2012, that he is adamant his regime will not fall and he also lashed out at Gulf countries, particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which he accused of using their enormous oil wealth to try to drive him from power.

International outrage against Syria intensified May 29, 2012, as France, Britain, Germany, Italy, Spain, Canada and Australia expelled Syrian diplomats in response to a massacre of 108 civilians, including women and children, in the town of Houla. Witnesses blamed the house-to-house killings on pro-government militias known as shabiha. Turkey, Syria’s neighbour and a former close ally, and Japan joined the co-ordinated protest May 30.

Syria barred a string of U.S. and European diplomats on June 5, saying they were “no longer welcome.” The countries targeted by the expulsion order had already pulled their ambassadors from Damascus, but the move was symbolic. Damascus took a “reciprocal measure” against ambassadors from the U.S., Britain, Turkey, Switzerland, Germany, Canada, Bulgaria, Belgium, France, Italy and Spain.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said May 31 that those responsible for the massacre of more than 100 people in Houla should be punished. It was an unusually harsh criticism from an ally of Syria.

United Nations: Lakhdar Brahimi took over as UN envoy to Syria on Aug. 17, 2012. He has continued Annan’s work to try and broker a peace deal, without success.

Former UN secretary general Kofi Annan was appointed the joint United Nations-Arab League envoy on the Syrian crisis on Feb. 23, 2012, with a mandate to bring an end to the violence and promote a peaceful political solution. His peace plan never took hold and the work of UN monitors was stopped in the summer due to escalating violence. Annan stepped down from the post on Aug. 2, 2012.

The UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly on Feb. 16, 2012, for a non-binding resolution backing an Arab League plan calling for Assad to step down and strongly condemning human rights violations by his regime. But two similar resolutions voted on earlier by the Security Council were vetoed by China and Russia, Syria’s allies.

Russia: Russian President Vladimir Putin said July 10 that the Syrian government and opposition groups should be “forced” to start a dialogue. A senior Russian official said Moscow was halting its weapons sales to Syrian authorities.

Putin warned Feb. 27, 2012, against a military intervention in Syria and an attack on Iran, and claimed the West had backed the Arab Spring revolts to advance its interests in the region.

China: China continues to support the Assad regime in Syria. China condemned the “cruel killings” of civilians in the Syrian town of Houla on May 28, 2012, while insisting that UN mediator Kofi Annan’s efforts remained the most viable way to end the violence in Syria. On Feb. 4, 2012, China joined Russia in vetoing a UN Security Council resolution calling on Assad to step down.

United States: President Barack Obama said Aug. 20 that the U.S. would reconsider its opposition to military involvement in the civil war if al-Assad deploys or uses chemical or biological weapons.

On Feb. 6, the U.S. pulled its embassy staff from Damascus. The U.S. has also imposed sanctions on Syria, freezing all Syrian assets in the U.S. and banning the import of all Syrian petroleum and petroleum products. Other countries, including those of the European Union, have followed suit.

Arab States: The Arab League approved sanctions against Syria on Dec. 3, 2011, barring several Syrian officials — but not Assad — from travelling to the League’s member nations. The group also agreed to a list of strategic goods that would be exempted from a trade ban to avoid harming the Syrian people and also ordered a 50 per cent reduction in flights to Syria.

The Syrian leadership rejected a call by the Arab League on Jan. 22, 2012, for the establishment of a national unity government.

On Feb. 7, 2012, the six nations of the Gulf Co-operation Council pulled their ambassadors from Syria, because of Assad’s refusal to accept Arab attempts to end the country’s bloodshed.

The League had voted to suspend Syria from the 22-member bloc on Nov. 12, 2011. Only Lebanon and Yemen voted against the suspension, with Iraq abstaining.

Jordan: A Jordanian soldier was killed in clashes with armed militants trying to cross the border into Syria on Oct. 22, 2012. U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said Oct. 10, 2012, that the U.S. had sent military troops to the Jordan-Syria border to help build a headquarters in Jordan and bolster that country’s military capabilities in the event that violence escalates along its border with Syria.

King Abdullah of Jordan was the first Arab ruler to call on Assad to step down, on Nov. 14, 2011.

Turkey: Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, said Oct. 14 that his country has barred its air space to Syrian civilian flights. Turkey forced a Syrian passenger plane to land on Oct. 11, saying the aircraft was carrying illicit cargo from Russia. Syria branded the incident piracy and said there was nothing illegal on board.

On June 22, 2012, Syria shot down a Turkish fighter jet, inflaming tensions. Syrian President Bashar Assad said July 3 that he regrets the incident and that he will not allow tensions between the two neighbours to turn into an “armed conflict,” but did not issue a formal apology.

A former ally of Syria, Turkey condemned Assad on Dec. 22, 2011, for turning his country into a “bloodbath.” On Nov. 15, 2011, Turkey called on the Syrian government to end the violence and added that it was cancelling oil exploration plans in the country. By October 2012, an estimated 100,000 Syrians had fled the fighting into Turkey, with more seeking refuge in Lebanon.

Lebanon: Lebanese troops launched a major security operation on Oct. 22, 2012, to open all roads and force gunmen off the streets, trying to contain an outburst of violence set off by the assassination of Lebanese Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan in a Beirut car bomb on Oct. 19. The top intelligence official was a powerful opponent of Syria.

Syrian rebels kidnapped 11 Lebanese Shias and one Syrian driver in northern Syria on May 22, 2012.
ARAB SPRING Where protests still rage, 1 year later

Canada: Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said Aug. 15, 2012, that Canada has changed course and will not move forward with a plan to give $2 million to a Syrian-Canadian group for medical supplies.

Canada closed its embassy in Syria on March 5, 2012. It has imposed sanctions on Syria, including a ban on the export of software for the monitoring of telephone and internet communications, a travel ban on those associated with the regime, freezing Syrian government assets and prohibiting most Canadian trade with Syria.

European Union: The EU has placed sanctions on Syrian people and organizations in its effort to get Assad to halt his bloody crackdown and has banned the import of Syrian crude oil. The sanctions include visa and travel bans, the freezing of assets, prohibitions on the purchase of gold, precious metals, diamonds and other types of trade and a ban on cargo flights from EU countries to Syria.

Italy was the first EU country to withdraw its ambassador to Syria on Aug. 2, 2011.France closed its embassy in Syria on March 2, 2012. The U.K. and France recalled their ambassadors on Feb. 6 for “consultation.”

Israel: On Nov. 6, 2012, the Israeli military said a bullet from Syria struck one of its vehicles travelling on the Israeli side of the cease-fire line in the Golan Heights. Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said July 19, 2012, that Israel would stop Syrian refugees from entering the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights if they try to flee there. While Syria and Israel are bitter enemies, the border has been mostly quiet since 1974.

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