What's happening in Syria?
Updated: March 2012
Since gaining independence from France in 1946, Syria’s political history has been characterised by military rule and a state of emergency – first declared in 1963, but which stood for over 4 decades – which effectively suspended the political freedoms of the country’s citizens. The Assad family came to power in 1971, when Hafaz Al Assad seized the presidency in a military coup. The current president, Bashar Al Assad, succeeded his father in 2000. Under the Assads, the rule of the Alawites – the Shi’a sect to which they belong and that makes up 13 per cent of the Syrian population – was enshrined in the constitution and further cemented by the monopoly held by Alawites over all senior positions in Syria’s state and military apparatus. Political dissent was ruthlessly suppressed.
In 2011, a wave of revolutionary fervour which began in Tunisia but which spread throughout the Arab world – the Arab Spring – catalyzed peaceful protests in Syria calling for democratic rights and wide-ranging reform. The protests met with a brutal response from the Security Forces, including incidents in which the funeral processions of protestors who had been killed in the mounting violence were fired upon, prompting them to spread from Deraa to Al Ladhiqiyah, Baniyas, Damascus, Dayr Az Zawr, Homs, Hama and Idlib. Despite making some concessions in an effort to ameliorate the unrest – including the lifting of the state of emergency in April 2011 – President Al Assad and his government maintained that the use of military force was proportionate to the threat posed by armed gangs and terrorists that it claimed were responsible for the violence. Since May 2011, areas of anti-government protest have been under-siege. Over 7,500 people are estimated to have died since the uprising began.[i]
The violence has created a dire humanitarian crisis. In Homs, many districts are without electricity; food, water and medicine is in short supply; and the people there have been forced to shelter in their homes for fear that they will be targeted by snipers, or become victims of artillery fire. The situation has been worsened further by the restrictions placed upon aid agencies by the government; The International Committee of the Red Cross has been denied access to Baba Amr, one of the most embattled districts of Homs, despite earlier assurances from the government that it would be able to deliver aid on 2 March. Local Security Forces claim that bombs and landmines left behind by opposition forces after they were routed from Baba Amr make it unsafe for the ICRC to enter; some fear however that the government is playing for time whilst it continues to brutalise the civilian population. Valerie Amos, the UN Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, has been refused entry into Syria.
The crisis has not been limited to within Syria’s borders. In spite of reports that Security Forces have fired upon, and killed, those trying to flee the country, tens of thousands of Syrians have crossed the border into Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.
Although parallels can be drawn between the causes of the uprising in Syria and those of other Arab Spring uprisings, they end there. Relative to Tunisia, Egypt and even Libya – where fighting to remove Colonel Gaddafi from power lasted for eight months – the conflict in Syria is likely to be protracted. In the first instance, there remains no agreement among the international community about how to respond to the Syrian uprising. Even though the UN Security Council released a unanimous statement on 1 March deploring the humanitarian situation and urging that aid agencies be given unimpeded access to those in need, Russia and China vetoed two previous Security Council resolutions, which condemned the Syrian government and called for a transition to a plural democracy, on the grounds that they would legitimise foreign military intervention. Similarly, opposition groups in Syria – including the Syrian National Council, the National Co-ordination Council and the Free Syria Army – remain fractious and deeply divided over how to achieve regime change.
Whilst the future of Syria is uncertain, the current crackdown is reminiscent of the response of President Hafaz Al Assad to an uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood in 1982, when Security Forces laid siege to city of Hama with impunity, killing between 10,000 and 25,000 people, most of them civilians.[ii]
The impact upon children
The UN Human Rights Council has reported that “children have suffered serious violations and that State forces have shown little or no recognition of the rights of children in the actions taken to quell dissent”.[i] As of 26 February 2012, 599 children had purportedly been killed.[ii] The situation is particularly grave in Homs, with daily reports of children being the victims of sniper or artillery fire.
First-hand accounts also indicate that children, some younger than 10, are present in detention centres in locations throughout the country and are being subjected to ill-treatment and torture – including sexual abuse.[iii] The detention and torture of a group of children accused of painting anti-government graffiti on public buildings in Deraa in March 2011, was a critical factor behind the spread of protests countrywide.[iv]
Many children have been denied access to education by the use of their schools as military detention facilities or as vantage points by snipers indiscriminately targeting civilians and rebels.[v]
[ii] ‘Situation Map: Syria Uprising Update 7 – Reported Events from 20 – 26 February 2012 and Cumulative Total Deaths’ <http://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/map_1725.pdf> [Accessed 29 February, 2012]
[iii] ‘Report of the independent international commission of inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic’, <http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/hrcouncil/specialsession/17/docs/A-HRC-S-17-2-Add1.pdf> [Accessed 24 February, 2012]
[i] ‘Situation Map: Syria Uprising Update 7 – Reported Events from 20 – 26 February 2012 and Cumulative Total Deaths’ <http://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/map_1725.pdf> [Accessed 29 February, 2012]
[ii] ‘Report of the independent international commission of inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic’, <http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/hrcouncil/specialsession/17/docs/A-HRC-S-17-2-Add1.pdf> [Accessed 24 February, 2012]