The situation has grown more dire since Assad’s regime began a violent crackdown last March—including reports of hundreds massacred this week.
On February 3, 2012, multiple reports from activists inside Syria described massive shelling and an army offensive in the central Syrian city of Homs. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights puts the casualty figure at over a hundred, and claims many hundreds more are injured; otherestimates have the body count at 200 and climbing. Activists report that “nail bombs” were used by the army during a mortar attack on the Khaldiyeh neighborhood. The reports come thirty years after the infamous Hama Massacre was conducted by the Syrian army over the course of four weeks in February 1982 (the operation was ordered by President Hafez al-Assad, father and predecessor to Syria’s current ruler Bashar al-Assad).
The UN Security Council is scheduled to convene Saturday morning to discuss a much-debated draft resolution on Syria. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is set to meet with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov that same morning in Munich.
Here’s a rundown of the deteriorating situation in Syria:
The basics: Syria is an Arab country with more than 22 million people; it borders many of the major players in the Middle East (Israel, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, Turkey) and is roughly the size of North Dakota. Syria famously lost the Golan Heights to Israel in 1967, during the Arab-Israeli war; negotiations between the two countries have been minimal in recent years. Like many countries in the region, Syria’s main export is oil. Unlike Saudi Arabia or Iran, however, Syria’s oil reserves are relatively small; it ranks 33rd in the world. Syria is home to a smorgasbord of ethnicities and religions: Arabs, Kurds, Christians, Sunnis, Alawites, and Druze. The capital, Damascus, is a bustling metropolis (many believe it to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world) but is not the site of the country’s most significant protests (though rebels captured parts of the city in late January). That city, Hama, is the country’s fourth-largest, with fewer than 1 million occupants.
What’s happening now? Ever since last March, Syrians, especially those in the country’s central region, have protested the iron-fisted government headed by Bashar al-Assad. During the first week of August the Syrian army began a brutal campaign to control Hama, using tanks and troop assaults to kill citizens in a seemingly indiscriminate manner. The situation has continued to escalate in 2012. In late January, rebels known as the Free Syrian Army, reportedly took control of a portion of Damascus’ suburbs. On January 31, Syrian government forces, according to Reuters, “reasserted control” of the Damascus suburbs. Elsewhere, in Homs, a central-Syrian town with more than a million people, Syrian government forces killed nearly 100 people—activists say 55 civilians were killed—on January 31. The Free Syrian Army has fought on, asserting that “half of the country” is now effectively a no-go zone for Assad’s security forces. Since November, at least 3,000 Syrians reportedly have been killed.
Who’s in charge?: Assad has ruled Syria since 2000. His father, Hafez al-Assad, a member of the Baath Party, came to power in 1970 after leading a bloodless coup. Assad’s family came from a minority religious sect: the Alawites, an offshoot of Shia Islam. Thirty years ago, Assad launched one of the most brutal massacres in the modern history of the Middle East: His troops killed nearly 20,000 people in the city of Hama. In 2000, Hafez Assad died, and Bashar took over. To some, the shift from Hafez to Bashar suggested an opportunity (albeit a limited one) for Syria to become a more politically moderate society. Last year, Vogue magazine perpetuated that notion with a widely remarked profile of first lady Asma al-Assad published during the height of the Arab Spring. It stated that Syria was “the safest country in the Middle East.” Clearly that couldn’t have been more off-base, with Bashar apparently intent on following in his father’s footsteps.
What is the rest of the world doing about the situation? On January 31, the United Nations Security Council considered a resolution introduced by Morocco, urging Assad to resign. The prior weekend, the Arab League pulled its observers out of Syria due to continued violence. At the UN, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said: “The United States urges the Security Council to back the Arab League’s demand that the Syrian Government immediately stop all attacks against civilians and guarantee the freedom of peaceful demonstrations.” Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr Al-Thani, Qatar’s foreign minister, told the UN that Syria: “did not fully and immediately met (sic) its commitments to the Arab League” and that the Syrian “killing machine is still at work.” Nabil Elaraby, the secretary general of the Arab League, urged the council to adopt the sanctions, imploring: “Do not let the Syrian people down in its plight.” Russia and China, considering their own interests on the global chessboard, are likely to veto the measure. Until now, Turkey, the European Union, and the United States have all enforced strict sanctions against the Syrian government. Regardless, Russia, according to the BBC, has contracts worth an estimated $1.5 billion for weapons sales to the Syrian government. As of late January, the US has begun preparations to close its embassy in Damascus.
Should the United States now consider military involvement? Shadi Hamid, research director at the Brookings Doha Center, wrote in The Atlantic last week that the “case for intervention is strong” and that the international community “must begin considering a variety of military options.” Others, like Marc Lynch, a professor at George Washington University, say the US “should not be contemplating military intervention in Syria. Risky, costly foreign policy decisions can not simply be taken to express moral outrage.” Lynch believes a military intervention will not improve the situation in Syra, adding that “their failure would likely pave the way to something far worse.”
How do I follow what’s happening in real time? For keeping up with what’s happening in Syria—as well as most stories unfolding in the Middle East—it’s a good idea to follow the Twitter feed of Blake Hounshell, Foreign Policy’s managing editor. Ahmed Al Omran, author of the Saudi blog Saudi Jeans, and Borzou Daragahi, the Middle East reporter for the Financial Times, are also good Syria tweeps. Al-Jazeera English, the New York Times, and the Guardian’sconstantly updated Middle East blog all provide good, up-to-date information on the situation in Syria.