Monday, February 27, 2012

Guide: Syria Crisis


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The Syrian authorities have responded to anti-government protests with overwhelming military force since they erupted in March 2011. The protests pose the greatest challenge to four decades of Assad family rule in the country.

Here is an overview of the uprising, in which the UN says more than 5,000 civilians have been killed by security forces and 14,000 others detained. The government says 2,000 members of the security forces have died.

How did the protests start?
The unrest began in the southern city of Deraa in March when locals gathered to demand the release of about 15 school children who were arrested and reportedly tortured after writing on a wall the well-known slogan of the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt: "The people want the downfall of the regime." The protesters also called for democracy and greater freedom, though not President Assad's resignation.

The view from next door

Syria and neighbours
The peaceful show of dissent was, however, too much for the government and when people marched though the city after Friday prayers on 18 March, security forces opened fire, killing four people. The following day, they shot at mourners at the victims' funerals, killing another person.

Within days, the unrest in Deraa had spiralled out of the control of the local authorities. In late March, the army's fourth armoured division - commanded by the president's brother, Maher - was sent in to crush the emboldened protesters. Dozens of people were killed, as tanks shelled residential areas and troops stormed homes, rounding up those believed to have attended demonstrations.

But the crackdown failed to stop the unrest in Deraa, instead triggering anti-government protests in other towns and cities across the country, including Baniyas, Homs, Hama and the suburbs of Damascus. The army subsequently besieged them, blaming "armed gangs and terrorists" for the unrest. By mid-May, the death toll had reached 1,000.

What do the protesters want and what have they got?
Protesters began somewhat cautiously by calling for democracy and greater freedom in what is one of the most repressive countries in the Arab world. But once security forces opened fire on peaceful demonstrations, people demanded that Mr Assad resign.

The president has resolutely refused to step down, but in the few public statements he has made since March he has offered some concessions and promised reform. Activists say that - as long as people continue to be killed - his promises count for very little.

The demands

What protesters want What Assad has offered
A Syrian woman protests in Amman, 15 May President Assad
Fall of the regime
Mr Assad has made clear that he has no intention to step down
End to the 48-year-old emergency law
He revoked the emergency law on 21 April, but Syrian forces continued to open fire on demonstrations and detain people without arrest warrants
Immediate end to extrajudicial killings and torture
The president has rejected as "false" allegations made by the UN that Syrian security forces have committed crimes against humanity, including killings, torture, rape, imprisonment, and other forms of severe deprivation of liberty and disappearances
Release of political prisoners and detained protesters
Amnesties were offered to political prisoners in May, June and January. Officials say thousands were released, but as many as 37,000 are still in prison, according to human rights activists
Transition to a democratic, free and pluralistic society
In June, Mr Assad announced the start of a "national dialogue", which would review new election law, allowing political parties other than the Baath Party, and constitutional reform. The opposition and activists involved in the uprising rejected any dialogue
Is there an organised opposition?
The Syrian authorities have long restricted the activities of disparate opposition parties and activists, and they played a minor role at the start of the uprising. However, as the protests spread across the country and the government crackdown intensified, opposition groups publicly declared their support for the protesters' demands and in November several announced the formation of a united front, Syrian National Council (SNC). Led by the Paris-based dissident Burhan Ghalioun and including the Muslim Brotherhood, it aims to provide "the necessary support for the revolution to progress and realise the aspirations of our people for the overthrow of the regime, its symbols and its head".
Free Syrian Army fighters in Zabadani (20 January 2012)  
The opposition has also found it difficult to work with the Free Syrian Army, a group of army defectors
The SNC, which is dominated by Syria's majority Sunni Muslim community, has struggled to win over Christians and members of President Assad's Alawite sect, who each make up about 10% of the population and have so far stayed loyal to the government. The council's primacy has also been challenged by the National Co-ordination Committee (NCC), an opposition bloc that still functions within Syria and is led by Hussein Abdul Azim and other longstanding dissidents, some of whom are wary of the Islamists within the SNC.

The opposition has also found it difficult to work with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a group of army defectors which is seeking to topple Mr Assad by force. Based in Turkey, its fighters have launched increasingly deadly and audacious attacks on security forces in the north-western province of Idlib, around the central cities of Homs and Hama, and even on the outskirts of Damascus.

In January, residents of Zabadani, a mountain town 40km (25 miles) north-west of the capital, said it had been "liberated" by FSA fighters. Days later, defectors seized control of Douma, a suburb 10km (six miles) from Damascus, for a few hours. The FSA's leader, Riyad al-Asaad, claims to have 15,000 men under his command, though analysts believe there may be no more than 7,000. They are also still poorly armed, and many have only basic military training.

Is this a sectarian conflict?
Syria is a country of 21 million people with a large Sunni majority (74%) and significant minorities (10% each) of Christians and Alawites - the Shia sect to which Mr Assad belongs. For years, Mr Assad has promoted a secular identity for the Syrian state, hoping to unify diverse communities in a region where sectarian conflict is rife - as seen in neighbouring Lebanon and Iraq.
Pro-Assad rally in Damascus on 21 June  
The regime can still mobilise support, especially from minority groups and the upper classes
However, he also concentrated power in the hands of his family and members of the Alawite community, who wield a disproportionate power in the Syrian government, military and business elite. Claims of corruption and nepotism have been rife among the excluded Sunni majority. And protests have generally been biggest in Sunni-dominated rural areas, towns and cities, as opposed to mixed areas.

Opposition figures have stressed that they seek a "multi-national, multi-ethnic and religiously tolerant society". But there are fears of chaos and instability - even talk of civil war - if Mr Assad should fall. Activists say these fears are overblown.

What is the international community doing?
Syria is a major player in the Middle East. Any chaos here could cause knock-on effects in countries such as Lebanon and Israel, where it can mobilise powerful proxy groups, such as the militant Hezbollah and Hamas movements. It also has close ties with Shia power Iran - an arch-foe of the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia - which could potentially draw those powers into a dangerous Middle Eastern conflict.
Arab League observers in Damascus (9 January 2012)  
The Arab League observer mission in Syria failed to halt the crackdown on dissent
The Arab League initially remained silent on the issue of Syria - although it backed the Nato-led bombing campaign against Libya's Col Muammar Gaddafi in a bid to protect civilians there. The 22-member group called for an end to the violence, but cited hesitation over any action because of "strategic and political considerations".

But in November, member states led by Qatar and Saudi Arabia surprised observers by voting to suspend Syria in an effort to force President Assad to end the crackdown. The League later imposed economic sanctions when the Syrian government hesitated over allowing the deployment of an observer mission to verify its implementation of a peace initiative, which demanded the withdrawal of troops and tanks from the streets. Damascus eventually allowed in the observers in December, but they failed to halt the crackdown on dissent.

In late January, the Arab League laid out an ambitious plan of political reform, which called on President Assad to delegate power to a vice-president, to engage in proper dialogue with the opposition within two weeks, and form a government of national unity in two months. The League said this should eventually lead to multi-party elections overseen by international observers. A week later, following a dramatic increase in violence, the League suspended its observer mission.

The League sought the support of the UN Security Council for its Syrian reform plan, rejected by Damascus on the grounds that it would infringe on national sovereignty. But a UN resolution supporting the plan was vetoed by Russia, which has significant economic and military ties with Syria, and by China. It was their second veto on Security Council action. Moscow has expressed concern that this would pave the way for military intervention.
What is the economic fallout of the unrest in Syria?

At a glance: Syria

  • Population: 21 million
  • Population below poverty line: 12%
  • Corruption ranking: 127/178
  • Literacy: 84%
  • Median age: 21.5; Youths out of work: 24%
  • Major ethnic groups: Arabs (90%), Kurds (9%), Armenians, Circassians, Turkomans
In June, Mr Assad warned his people that "the most dangerous thing" facing Syria was "the weakness or collapse" of the Syrian economy. Even before the unrest, Syrians had endured decades of high unemployment, widespread poverty and rising food prices. 

Now, business, farming and trade have been hard hit by economic sanctions imposed by the Arab League, the European Union, the United States and neighbouring Turkey. Tourism has all but collapsed, while oil sales - accounting for a major share of government revenue - have plummeted. Unemployment is estimated to have risen to more than 20%.

Economic analysts warn that time is against Mr Assad. They say protests will gain added momentum when the newly-unemployed join their ranks and government subsidies on vital commodities like diesel run out.

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