[Updates on recent developments are here at the top; for background, jump below to our explainer from earlier this year. Also read our exclusive report on a Syrian hit list targeting thousands of dissidents.]
Update, July 18: A bomb blast in Damascus has killed at least three of Bashar Al-Assad’s top aides, including his minister of defense and brother-in-law. In Washington, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the conflict “is rapidly spinning out of control,” and worried openly about the regime’s large chemical weapons arsenal, parts of which Assad has reportedly moved out of storage in recent days.
Update, May 27: More than 90 people were massacred by Syrian military forces in the village of Houla on Saturday, according to the New York Times. Among those reportedly killed were at least 32 children under the age of 10, many of them found with “what appeared to be bullet holes in their temples.”
Update, March 6: Republican congressional leaders are at odds about dealing with Syria: John McCain wants to begin US air strikes. John Boehner says the situation is too complicated for the US to get involved militarily right now.
Update, March 1: After a nearly month-long assault, the Syrian Army has overwhelmed the main rebel stronghold in Homs and retaken control. Uprisings continue in other cities. The ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee said on Thursday that the US should make no moves to intervene directly in the conflict in the near term.
Update, Feb. 29: Reports on Wednesday indicated a ground offensive by the Syrian military moved deeper into the city of Homs. The continued assault comes a day after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said during testimony before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad would fit the definition of “war criminal.” (Clinton did not, however, state that the international community should bring charges; she stressed that doing so could make it even more difficult to wrest Assad from power.)
Update, Feb. 27: Scores more have been reported killed on Monday as the Syrian military continues its relentless bombing of Homs and towns in the northwestern area of Idlib. The EU has ratched up sanctions including a freeze on European-held assets of the Syrian central bank. Syria’s Interior Ministry announced that voters had overwhelmingly approved a new Constitution aimed at reform; Western leaders slammed the referendum as having no credibility amid the widespread violence.
Update, Feb. 24: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other world leaders gathered in Tunis on Friday, calling for humanitarian aid and a UN peacekeeping force to be allowed into Syria. President Obama also weighed in, saying, “We are going to continue to keep the pressure up and look for every tool available to prevent the slaughter of innocents in Syria.”
Update, Feb. 22: The Syrian government’s military assault on Homs has reached its 19th day; according to reports from activist groups, more than 80 people have been killed in the latest attacks. Those killed include two Western journalists: reporter Marie Colvin of the Sunday Times of London and Remi Olchik, a photographer from France.
Update, Feb. 16: Awful news: Preeminent foreign correspondent Anthony Shadid, who chronicled the Iraq war and Arab Spring like no other, died Thursday while reporting inside Syria. He apparently succumbed to an asthma attack. He was 43. Just a few weeks ago he spoke with Mother Jones about his invaluable work.
Update, Feb. 12: The Arab League asked the UN Security Council on Sunday to send peacekeepers to Syria. The League’s resolution also calls for “opening channels of communication with the Syrian opposition and providing all forms of political and financial support to it.” The Syrian government “categorically rejected” the resolution. (Syria was booted from the League in November.)
Meanwhile, Al Qaeda and other Islamist organizations have been calling for a jihad against the Assad regime, ostensibly throwing their support behind the rebels. (Syrian pro-democracy activists have previously rejected endorsement from Al Qaeda.) For instance, Al Qaeda in Iraq—which maintains an operational network in Syria—released a statement encouraging rebel forces to plant roadside bombs and carry out “hit-and-run operations” against regime loyalists.
Update, Feb. 11: A Syrian military general was assassinated in Damascus on Saturday, as a violent government offensive in Homs continued into its second week.
Update, Feb. 6: The US shut down its embassy in Damascus on Monday, with the State Department announcing that “all American personnel have now departed the country.” Reports from activists and opposition groups on Monday said that dozens more people have been killed by government forces in Homs.
Update, Feb. 4: On Saturday morning, the UN Security Council held a meeting to vote on a draft resolution that would demand an end to Syria’s violent crackdown on protesters and civilians. Thirteen countries voted in favor of the measure, but Russia (facing its own mass protests today) and China vetoed.
BBC News reports that Susan Rice, US ambassador to the UN, said that “any further bloodshed” will be on the hands of the Russian and Chinese actors. Gerard Araud, the French ambassador, said that China and Russia had “made themselves complicit in a policy of repression,” and that “[this] is a sad day for this council, a sad day for all Syrians, and a sad day for democracy.”
Russian ambassador Vitaly Churkin and Chinese ambassador Li Baodong defended their votes, stating that fellow council members had ignored their proposed amendments to the resolution. Margaret Besheer reports that Churkin also said: “I would certainly agree that tragic events are happening in Syria…[but the UN Security Council is] not the only diplomatic tool on this planet.”
Earlier in the day, President Obama issued a statement condemning the Syrian regime’s “unspeakable assault against the people of Homs,” and repeated that the “international community must work to protect the Syrian people from this abhorrent brutality.” The statement also read that, “the Assad regime must come to an end.”
Update, Feb. 3: On Friday, 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; other estimates 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 30 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).
In response to the news, anti-Assad rallies erupted at Syrian embassies in several major cities, including Cairo, Kuwait City, London, Berlin, and Washington, DC. Some of the embassies—including those in London and Cairo—were stormed by protesters, leading to arrests and property damage.
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 March 2011, 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. (Vogue scrubbed its archives of the Assad profile, but the internet doesn’t forget.)
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‘s constantly updated Middle East blog all provide good, up-to-date information on the situation in Syria.
[Also see our first Syria explainer from August 2011 for additional details.]