Syria: Timeline and Resources

The wave of Arab unrest that started with the Tunisian revolution of January 2011 reached Syria in mid-March, when residents of a small southern city took to the streets to protest the torture of students who had put up anti-government graffiti.

President Bashar al-Assad, who inherited Syria's harsh dictatorship from his father, Hafez al-Assad, at first wavered between force and hints of reform. But in April, just days after lifting the country's decades-old state of emergency, he launched the first of what became a series of withering crackdowns, sending tanks into restive cities as security forces opened fire on demonstrators.

Neither the violence nor Mr. Assad's offers of political reform — rejected as shams by protest leaders — brought an end to the unrest. Similarly, the protesters have not been able to withstand direct assault by the military's armored forces.

The conflict is complicated by Syria's ethnic divisions. The Assads and much of the nation's elite, especially the military, belong to the Alawite sect, a small minority in a mostly Sunni country. 

Syria's crackdown has been condemned internationally, as has President Assad, a British-trained doctor who many had hoped would soften his father's iron-handed regime. But no direct intervention has been proposed, and support for protesters has been balanced against fears of instability in a country at the heart of so many conflicts in the world's most volatile region. 

The United Nations places the death toll at about 2,700, and human rights groups said that well over 10,000 people had been arrested.

In July, the Obama administration, in a shift that was weeks in the making, turned against Mr. Assad but stopped short of demanding that he step down. By early August, the American ambassador was talking of a "post-Assad" Syria.

As the assaults on restive cities continued, cracks emerged in a tight-knit leadership that has until now rallied its base of support and maintained a unified front. Though there are no signs of an imminent collapse, divisions among senior officials and even moves by former government stalwarts to distance themselves from the leadership come at a time when Syria also faces what may be its greatest isolation in more than four decades of rule by the Assad family.

In early October, in what seemed to be the most serious attempt to bring together a fragmented opposition, Syrian dissidents formally established the Syrian National Council. The group's stated goal was to overthrow President Assad's government. Members said the council included representatives from the Damascus Declaration group, a pro-democracy network; the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, a banned Islamic political party; various Kurdish factions; the Local Coordination Committees, a group that helps organize and document protests; and other independent and tribal figures.

The same month, a semblance of civil war erupted in Homs, Syria's third-largest city, where armed protesters were calling themselves revolutionaries. Since the start of the uprising, Homs has been one of Syria’s most contested cities. In the targeted killings, the rival security checkpoints and the hardening of sectarian sentiments, Homs seemed to offer a dark vision that could foretell the future of Syria’s uprising as both the government and the opposition readied themselves for a protracted struggle over the endurance of the four-decade dictatorship.

Increasingly convinced that President al-Assad will not be able to remain in power, the Obama administration began to make plans for American policy in the region after he is gone. In coordination with Turkey, the United States has been exploring how to deal with the possibility of a civil war among Syria’s Alawite, Druse, Christian and Sunni sects, a conflict that could quickly ignite other tensions in an already volatile region.

Protest Timeline

Oct. 3 Syrian dissidents formally established a broad-based national council designed to overthrow President Assad’s government. The announcement of the Syrian National Council appeared to be the most serious step yet to unify a fragmented opposition.

Sept. 27 Syria's Christian community remains largely supportive of Mr. Assad, fearing reprisals from Sunni Muslims if he falls or if protests degenerate into civil war. Their fears are echoed among minorities across the region, who wonder if it takes a strongman to protect them. 

Sept. 15 Syrian security forces shot dead 29 people in some of the country’s most restive locales: Homs, in central Syria; Dara’a, a southern town where the uprising began; the suburbs of the capital Damascus; and the outskirts of Hama, Syria’s fourth-largest city. The toll marked one of the bloodiest in weeks.

Sept. 12 The United Nations raised its estimate of the number of protesters killed in the uprising to 2,600, as it announced the appointment of three investigators to look into human rights abuses in the country.

Sept. 8 President Ahmadinejad of Iran became the most recent, and perhaps the most unexpected, world leader to call for President Assad to end his violent crackdown. As Syria's most important regional strategic ally, Iran has increased calls for Syria to end the violence and reform its political process, a formula Tehran apparently hopes will repair its image and, if heeded, possibly bolster Mr. Assad’s standing.

Sept. 5 Syria opened its main prison in Damascus to a delegation from the International Committee of the Red Cross for the first time since the uprising started in mid-March, amid hopes that the move could begin to reveal the fate of thousands of political detainees. At the same time as the visit, at least five people were killed when Syrian troops raided several cities and towns across the country in search of activists and protesters who were involved in planning the uprising. Troops also raided homes and combed areas in northern and central Syria looking for the attorney general, Adnan Bakkour, whose resignation greatly embarrassed the government.

Sept. 1 Hama's attorney general, Mohammed Adnan al-Bakkour, resigned in protest as he detailed hundreds of killings, arrests and torture cases by the government of President Assad. His resignation was the first by a senior Syrian official and could represent a major blow to the government of Mr. Assad, who has so far dismissed all criticism of his crackdown on pro-democracy activists and ignored calls by the international community to step down. Mr. Bakkour said he quit because he was forced to falsify reports as security forces killed hundreds of jailed, peaceful demonstrators and buried them in mass graves.

Aug. 30 Security forces killed at least seven people in southern and central Syria when they opened fire at worshipers emerging from mosques after early prayers marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan. At the same time, there were reports that dozens of soldiers, possibly encouraged by the rout in Libya of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, had deserted their positions in a village near Homs and on the outskirts of Damascus to join the uprising.

Events in Syria: A Chronology For a day by day account of events in Syria between March and late August, go to our chronology page.

Background to Protests

The country's last serious stirrings of public discontent had come in 1982, when increasingly violent skirmishes with the Muslim Brotherhood prompted Hafez al-Assad to move against them, sending troops to kill at least 10,000 people and smashing the old city of Hama. Hundreds of fundamentalist leaders were jailed, many never seen alive again.

Syria has a liability not found in the successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt — it is a majority Sunni nation that is ruled by a religious minority, the Alawite sect of Shiite Islam. Hafez Assad forged his power base through fear, cooption and sect loyalty. He built an alliance with an elite Sunni business community, and created multiple security services staffed primarily by Alawites. Those security forces have a great deal to lose if the government falls, experts said, because they are part of a widely despised minority, and so have the incentive of self-preservation.

Foreign Policy

Under the administration of President George W. Bush, Syria was once again vilified as a dangerous pariah. It was linked to the  2005 killing of a former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri. In 2007, Israeli jets destroyed buildings in Syria that intelligence officials said might have been the first stage in a nuclear weapons program. And the United States and its Arab allies mounted a vigorous campaign to isolate Damascus, which they accused of sowing chaos and violence throughout the middle east through its support for militant groups like Hezbollah and Hamas.

President Obama came into office pledging to engage with Syria, arguing that the Bush administration’s efforts to isolate Syria had done nothing to wean it from Iran or encourage Middle East peace efforts. So far, however, the engagement has been limited. American diplomats have visited Damascus, but have reiterated the same priorities as the Bush administration: protesting Syria’s military support to Hezbollah andHamas, and its strong ties with Iran.

Secret State Department cables obtained by WikiLeaks and made available to several news organizations show that arms transactions involving Syria and Hezbollah continue to greatly concern the Obama administration. Hezbollah’s arsenal now includes up to 50,000 rockets and missiles, including some 40 to 50 Fateh-110 missiles capable of reaching Tel Aviv and most of Israel, and 10 Scud-D missiles.

“Syria’s determined support of Hizballah’s military build-up, particularly the steady supply of longer-range rockets and the introduction of guided missiles could change the military balance and produce a scenario significantly more destructive than the July-August 2006 war,” said a November 2009 cable from the American chargé d’affaires in Damascus.

According to cables, Syrian leaders appeared to believe that the weapons shipments increased their political leverage with the Israelis. But they made Lebanon even more of a tinderbox and increased the prospect that a future conflict might include Syria.

The Hariri Case

Also looming is potential new trouble in Lebanon, where a United Nations-backed international tribunal is expected to indict members of Hezbollah in the death of Mr. Hariri. Hezbollah and its allies — including high-ranking Syrian officials — have warned that an indictment could set off civil conflict.

The United States withdrew its ambassador in 2005 after Mr. Hariri was killed in a car bombing in Beirut along with 22 others. Syria was widely accused of having orchestrated the killing, though it has vehemently denied involvement. The Bush administration imposed economic sanctions on Syria, as part of a broader effort to isolate the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

The current chill is a significant change from the situation a few years ago, when Mr. al-Assad showed signs of wanting warmer relations with the West than his father, Hafez al-Assad, had ever pursued. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France led the way with a visit in September 2008. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who was said to be furious at the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, welcomed him warmly in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, in March 2009. And Prime Minster Ehud Olmert of Israel hinted at a revival of talks on the Golan Heights -- a prospect that faded when Mr. Olmert was succeeded by the more conservative Benjamin Netanyahu. 

Syria Navigator

A list of resources about Syria as selected by researchers and editors of The New York Times.

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