Syria: Background

by BBC News Middle East

The Syrian authorities have responded to widespread anti-government protests with overwhelming military force. The protests pose the greatest challenge to four decades of Assad family rule in the country.

Here is an overview of the protests, which have so far left 1,600 people dead, sent 10,000 fleeing to Turkey, and seen tens of thousands more injured or arrested.

How did the protests start?

Inspired by the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, the Syrian protests began in March with rallies calling for freedom in the southern border town of Deraa. But several people were killed when security forces opened fire on unarmed crowds. The unrest in Deraa quickly spiralled out of control, and then spread to other towns and cities. President Bashar al-Assad sent in tanks and troops to restore order, blaming "armed gangs and terrorists" for the unrest. Towns like Deraa, Homs and Douma were besieged for days. Hundreds were killed when snipers and tanks fired on unarmed protesters. Men were rounded up in night-time raids and electricity and communication lines were cut.

As the unrest spread to the north of the country, troops besieged the town of Jisr al-Shughour, where the government said 120 security personnel were killed. Fearing a military onslaught, more than 10,000 people fled to Turkey, where they remain in refugee camps.

However, the protests have not yet taken hold in the capital Damascus or the second largest city Aleppo, which are under heavy security guard.

What do the protesters want and what have they got?

For months, protesters have been calling for democracy and freedom in what is one of the most repressive countries in the Arab world. Mr Assad has made some concessions and promised further reform, but has not once mentioned the word "democracy" in his public statements. Activists say that - as long as people continue to be killed in the streets - his promises count for very little.

What protesters wantWhat Assad has offered

Fall of the regime

Mr Assad has made clear that he has no intention to step down

End to the 48-year-old emergency law

He revoked the emergency law on 21 April, but Syrian forces went on to kill 1,300 protesters and arrest 10,000

Immediate end to extrajudicial killings and torture

Still sending troops into villages - citing need for "security" - and holding hundreds in jail

Release of political prisoners and detainees from the protests

An amnesty offered to political prisoners on 31 May. Hundreds released, but thousands still jailed, and hundreds more arrested. Second amnesty announced on 21 June, but details unclear

Transition to a democratic, free and pluralistic society

National dialogue set to review new election law, allowing political parties other than the Baath Party, and constitutional reform

Free media

Media reform committee due to report in July

Independent judiciary; end to extrajudicial and martial courts

Not addressed

Compensation for political exiles and disappeared political prisoners

Not addressed

Is this a sectarian conflict?

However, he also concentrated power in the hands of his family and members of the Alawite community, who wield a disproportionate power in the Syrian government, military and business elite. Claims of corruption and nepotism have been rife among the excluded Sunni majority. And protests have generally been biggest in Sunni-dominated rural areas and towns and cities, as opposed to mixed areas.

Opposition figures have stressed that they seek a "multi-national, multi-ethnic and religiously tolerant society". But there are fears of chaos and instability - even talk of civil war - if Mr Assad should fall. Activists say these fears are overblown. But many inside Syria - even those who want to see serious political reforms - say they would prefer to give Mr Assad time to implement them rather than risk instability or sectarian strife.

What are the implications for the region?

Syria is a major player in the Middle East.

Any chaos here could cause knock-on effects in countries such as Lebanon and Israel, where it can mobilise powerful proxy groups, such as the militant Hezbollah and Hamas movements. It also has close ties with Shia power Iran - an arch-foe of the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia - which could potentially draw those powers into a dangerous Middle Eastern conflict.

Perhaps tellingly, the Arab League has remained silent on the issue of Syria - although it backed the Nato-led bombing campaign against Libya's Col Muammar Gaddafi in a bid to protect civilian lives there. The league has called for an end to the violence, but cited hesitation over any action because of "strategic and political considerations".

Russia - which has significant economic and military ties with Syria - has refused to back a Western-drafted UN Security Council resolution condemning the violence, concerned that it would pave the way for military intervention.

At a glance: Syria

  • Population: 21 million
  • Population below poverty line: 12%
  • Corruption ranking: 127/178
  • Literacy: 84%
  • Median age: 21.5; Youths out of work: 24%
  • Major ethnic groups: Arabs (90%), Kurds (9%), Armenians, Circassians, Turkomans

What is the economic fallout of the unrest in Syria?

During his June speech, Mr Assad warned his people that "the most dangerous thing" facing Syria was "the weakness or collapse" of the Syrian economy. Even before the unrest, Syrians had endured decades of high unemployment, widespread poverty and rising food prices. Now, business, farming and trade have been hard hit. Tourism has all but collapsed.

In a bid to shore up their currency, Syrian businessmen have reportedly deposited millions of US dollars with the country's central bank. But there are reports of mass layoffs in private businesses and fears that lucrative construction and telecoms projects - funded by Gulf investors - will be put on hold indefinitely.

Economic analysts warn that time is against Mr Assad. They say protests will gain added momentum when the newly-unemployed join their ranks and government subsidies on vital commodities like diesel run out.