Peaceful anti-government protests began in February-March 2011 and spread from Dar’a to Al Ldhiqiyah, Baniyas, Damascus, DAyr Az Zawr, Homs, Hama and Idlib. Protesters, calling for far-reaching legal, economic and political reforms and, subsequently, the toppling of President Assad, were soon met with violence by the Government's army, security forces and militias (see also Non-State Actors section). President Assad announced steps toward reform in April, including lifting the state of emergency in effect in the country since 1963, and again in August, such as electoral reform and preparing a new constitution. (see Report of the independent international commission of inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, A/HRC/S-17/2/Add.1, 23 November 2011, paras. 31, 34)
Violence has nevertheless continued and the strength of the opposition, composed largely of defectors from the Syrian army, has grown. By March 2012, the main armed opposition group, the Free Syrian Army, claimed its numbers had risen to 70,000. There are reports of violent attacks by both government forces and opposition groups. On 8 November 2011, the OHCHR listed the number of civilians killed by state forces since March 2011 at 3,500; that number has since risen to March 2012 high estimates of 7,000 civilian casualties out of approximately 10,000 overall deaths. Subsequent reports indicated a rise in the number of casualties, though access to reliable data remained a problem.
Reports of abuses during the conflict
There have been numerous reports of abuses, mainly by state forces, during the Syrian conflict. The UN international commission of inquiry listed excessive use of force and extrajudicial executions, including orders to shoot without warning and to shoot to kill, as well as killings of soldiers refusing to carry out orders to shoot civilians. Arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, torture and other forms of ill-treatment, sexual violence and violations of children's rights were further identified by the UN commission, leading it to express grave concern at this all amounting to crimes against humanity committed against the Syrian population. International NGOs have also issued reports on abuses (for a full list, see International Other section). Human Rights Watch has also indicated its assessment of abuses by government forces as amounting to crimes against humanity. It particularly identified the use of torture, including against children and in hospitals, as well as the use of sniper fire and mortars, and of banned antipersonnel and antivehicle landmines along the borders with Turkey and Lebanon. Amnesty International has echoed such reports.
Over a hundred civilians, including women and children, were infamously killed in the Houla massacre on 25 May 2012, in an attack strongly condemned by the Human Rights Council and by the Security Council. By early June 2012, UN officials were confident in describing abuses in Syria as likely amounting to crimes against humanity. A new helicopter and tank attack in opposition-controlled Hama taking 220 civilian lives in mid-July 2012.
Reports of abuses by armed opposition groups have also emerged. Human Rights Watch has pointed to "kidnapping, detention, and torture of security force members, government supporters, and people identified as members of pro-government militias", as well as executions by armed opposition groups of security force members and civilians. The U.N. special representative for children and armed conflict has expressed concern that the Free Syrian Army was recruiting child soldiers.
International response to the conflict
The violence in Syria has drawn increasing condemnation, with the United States and European Union imposing sanctions. A UN Security Council resolution based on Art. 41 of the UN Charter was vetoed by China and Russia on 4 October 2011. A workplan to end the violence and protect citizens was announced by the League of Arab States on 2 November 2011, to which Syria formally agreed. However, the continued violence and non-implementation of the agreement led the League to suspend Syrian membership as well as to impose economic and political sanctions. The UN General Assembly has condemned the "continued widespread and systematic human rights violations by the Syrian authorities."
Mr Kofi Annan was appointed as Joint Special Envoy of the United Nations and the League of Arab States in February 2012, with the mission of "bringing an end to all violence and human rights violations, and promoting a peaceful solution to the Syrian crisis." On 27 March 2012, it was announced that the Syrian Government had agreed to a six-point plan put forth by the Special Envoy. The fragile ceasefire entered into effect on 12 April 2012 and UN observers began their monitoring work on 16 April 2012, despite reports of ongoing shellfire from government forces in Holms and other areas. In June 2012, the UN announced it was suspending its mission in Syria, due to its monitors' inability to conduct patrols and following reports of them being shot at.
On 30 June 2012, the UN-backed Action Group on Syria agreed on the necessary steps for the implementation of the six-point peace plan and for the country to transition toward stability. President Assad renewed his commitment to the plan in early July 2012. Meanwhile, members of the Syrian opposition, having previously criticised the UN peace plan, met in Cairo to discuss a political transition plan backed by the UN, Russia and the US.
Further reading: Saira Mohamed, "The U.N. Security Council and the Crisis in Syria", ASIL Insight, Vol. 16, Issue 11, 26 March 2012
Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the situation of human rights in the Syrian Arab Republic (September 2011)
First report of the independent international commission of inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic (November 2011)
Second report of the independent international commission of inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic (February 2012)
According to one Syrian analyst, Islamic fundamentalism in Syria has spread rapidly in recent years. The International Crisis Group reported that on 27 September 2008, the deadliest attack since the mid-1980s occurred, when a car bomb south of the capital killed 17 and wounded dozens; the official news agency said that the explosion was suspected to have been caused by an Islamist suicide bomber.
Syria remains in conflict with Israel, which occupies part of the Golan Heights it seized in 1967 in the closing stages of the Six-Day War. Most of the Syrian Arab inhabitants fled the area during the conflict. (1) An armistice line was established and the region came under Israeli military control. Almost immediately Israel began to settle the Golan. Today, there are believed to be 20,000 Israeli settlers and 20,000 Syrians, mostly Druze.
Syria tried to retake the Golan Heights during the 1973 Middle East war. Despite inflicting heavy losses on Israeli forces, the surprise assault was thwarted. Both countries signed an armistice in 1974 and a UN Disengagement Observer Force has been in place on the ceasefire line since 1974. Israel unilaterally annexed the Golan Heights in 1981. The move was not recognised internationally. Lebanon claims the Shebaa Farms area.
Overlooking northern Israel and southern Syria, the heights give Israel an excellent vantage point for monitoring Syrian movements. The topography provides a natural buffer against any military thrust from Syria. The area is also a key source of water for an arid region. Rainwater from the Golan's catchment feeds into the Jordan River. The area provides a third of Israel's water supply. The land is fertile, with the volcanic soil being used to cultivate vineyards and orchards and to raise cattle.
Syria wants to secure the return of the Golan Heights as part of any peace deal. In late 2003, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said he was ready to revive peace talks with Israel. In Israel, the principle of returning the territory in return for peace is already established. During US-brokered peace talks in 1999-2000 former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak had offered to return most of the Golan to Syria. But the main sticking point during the 1999 talks is also likely to bedevil any future discussions. Syria wants a full Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 border. This would give Damascus control of the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee -- Israel's main source of fresh water. Israel wishes to retain control of Galilee and says the border is located a few hundred metres to the east of the shore.
Note: (1) This section is based on the BBC online profile of the Golan Heights.
Further reading: International Crisis Group, "Restarting Israeli-Syrian Negotiations", Middle East Report No. 63, 10 April 2007
Last updated: 13 July 2012