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Background to Situation in Syria as of February 2012
Syria’s “Arab Spring” events started in March 2011 in the city of Deraa and spread rapidly throughout the country. People took to the streets spontaneously, and were quickly joined by dissidents – at first mostly secular, intellectual liberals – who had been planning for a few years. Peaceful demonstrations were calling for political freedom, an end to corruption, action on poverty and the lifting of an emergency law. The Assad regime’s response included promises of reforms (which were perceived by some as empty slogans, while others welcomed the promises) on the one hand, and brutal suppression of protests on the other hand.
The atmosphere of protests and brutal government response provided an opportunity for several opposition groups to not only join in the protests, but to hijack what started as peaceful calls for reforms. These opposition groups (some heavily armed) include Islamists as well as secular groups and Army defectors. Different opposition groups are supported by different Middle Eastern countries (such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar) and other forces such as Al Qaeda. Some reports have documented the smuggling of arms via Lebanon to insurgents and militia in Syria. Two opposition groups – the Syrian National Council and the Syrian Free Army – have been given refuge in Turkey. The Assad regime is supported by many in Syria’s two largest cities, Damascus and Aleppo.
Assad is from the minority Alawite sect (an offshoot of Shia Islam) and still has many supporters, especially among minorities. The biggest protests have been in Sunni-majority areas. Clashes between opposition groups and the regime in some cities in Syria continue to intensify to dangerous levels, particularly the city of Homs. More recently, a few small towns have come under the control of armed groups. Some analysts are warning of an all out civil war in Syria. Innocent civilians, including Christians, are in fear and suffering. A few thousand have fled to neighboring countries, and more have become internally displaced. The United Nations reported that as many as 7000 Syrians have been killed, including security forces and Army personnel.
The United States and European Union have imposed sanctions on Assad, but Russia and China have blocked a Western-sponsored draft resolution on Syria at the UN. Instead, Russia and China support a mediated domestic political process and cessation of violence by all perpetrators in Syria, and back Assad’s call for reforms. The international community’s efforts to secure a peaceful resolution to the crisis have failed thus far. Interferences by other Middle Eastern and Western countries have exacerbated the situation. Syrians are bewildered as to why they are made to pay for an international desire to isolate Iran. In a meeting of the heads of churches of Syria on 15 December, the patriarchs "rejected all sorts of foreign intervention from any foreign party" and "called for the lifting of the sanctions."
On February 23, the Secretary-Generals of the UN and the League of Arab States appointed former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan as a Joint Special Envoy on the Syrian crisis. Mr. Annan’s task is to consult broadly and engage with all relevant interlocutors within and outside Syria in order to end the violence and the humanitarian crisis, and facilitate a peaceful Syrian-led and inclusive political solution that meets the democratic aspirations of the Syrian people.