Syria: United Nations Report and Update

Updated: Jan. 3, 2012

United Nations Report

In late November, the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva released a long-awaited report on rights abuses by Syria’s  security forces. The report documented “patterns of summary execution, arbitrary arrest, enforced disappearance, torture, including sexual violence, as well as violations of children’s rights.”

The United Nations has estimated the death toll at 5,000 and estimates of the number detained run from 15,000 to 40,000. On Dec. 14, 2011, the U.N. secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, called on other countries to intervene to help end the bloodshed.

Through it all, Mr. Assad’s government has stubbornly clung to the narrative that it is besieged by a foreign plot.


Protest Timeline

Jan. 1 A pan-Arab body called for the immediate withdrawal of Arab League monitors in Syria, because President Bashar al-Assad’s government has continued to kill opponents, despite the monitors’ presence.

Dec. 31 After a month of negotiations, the two largest Syrian opposition groups said that they had agreed on a common approach to organizing a transitional government, a move that could help unify a movement divided between exiles and domestic dissidents.

Dec. 30 Tens and possibly hundreds of thousands of people filled the streets of several Syrian cities, as protesters seemed intent on showing Arab League monitors the extent of opposition to Mr. Assad’s government. Activists said that soldiers opened fire on several of the demonstrations, killing or injuring protesters in Hama and the Damascus suburb of Douma.

Dec. 29 Arab League observers were scheduled to visit several restive cities, including Dara’a, the site of the uprising’s earliest and largest demonstrations, as a prominent Syrian dissident joined a growing number of people in criticizing the mission’s leader,  Muhammed al-Dabi, who was head of Sudan’s military intelligence. Haytham Manna, an activist who has supported the observer mission, said in a statement that General Dabi’s qualifications for the post were “shallow” and suggested that the Arab League replace him.

Dec. 28 Arab League monitors gathered accounts about the Syrian government’s crackdown on dissent in Homs as fresh violence flared nearby in Hama, where activists said troops opened fire on thousands of unarmed protesters, killing at least six. Though Mr. Assad’s regime has made concessions to the observers, including the release of nearly 800 prisoners, the military appeared to be  pressing ahead with a campaign to put down even peaceful protests.

Dec. 27 Residents of the Syrian city of Homs said the government pulled some of its tanks from the streets, shortly before Arab League observers arrived to monitor pledges by the government to withdraw troops and heavy weapons from residential areas.

Dec. 23 Suicide attackers detonated two powerful car bombs outside government offices in Damascus, in what appeared to be the most brazen and deadly attacks against the government since the start of the uprising. Dozens were killed at the State Security Directorate headquarters and another security installation.

Dec. 22 As violence continued around Syria, delegates from the Arab League traveled to Damascus to start monitoring the government’s promise to end its violent suppression of the uprising. The visit is intended to set the ground rules for a mission that is supposed to bring hundreds of observers to Syria.

Dec. 21 Syrian rights activists and opposition groups said that forces loyal to Mr. Assad had killed at least 160 defecting soldiers, civilians and antigovernment activists over the prior three days in northwestern Syria.

Dec. 19 On a day when activists said more than 70 people were killed, Syria again agreed to an Arab League initiative that would allow Arab observers into the country. By signing, the Syrian government temporarily averted wider international involvement in the crisis.The same day, Syrian authorities released Razan Ghazzawi, an American-born blogger who was arrested at the border while on her way to attend a conference in Jordan on Dec. 4.

Dec. 17 The Arab League may take its initiative to the United Nations Security Council if Syria does not agree to implement the measure, as it agreed to six weeks ago. Qatar’s foreign minister, Sheik Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr al-Thani, said the window for an Arab solution was closing.

Dec. 16 Hundreds of thousands of anti-government demonstrators took to the streets, driven in part by new impatience with the Arab League over what they viewed as its repeated failure to penalize Mr. Assad’s regime over the violent repression of their nine-month-old uprising. Activists and opposition groups reported at least 17 people in Syria were killed in violent confrontations with security forces during the protests, including two minors and three women.

Dec. 15 Military defectors killed 27 soldiers in one of the largest attacks yet on Syrian security forces by a growing armed insurgency, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition group based in London. The clashes erupted at dawn in and around the city of Daraa, where the antigovernment uprising began in March. The attackers hit two checkpoints in the countryside and a military base inside the city, suggesting a level of coordination that had not been seen there before. Also, Russia’s United Nations ambassador proposed a surprise Security Council resolution that called on all antagonists in the Syria conflict to stop the violence and begin negotiations.

Dec. 14 Armed defectors from the Syrian military killed at least eight government troops in an ambush near the city of Hama in central Syria, according to opposition groups. The attack was in retaliation for the death of five civilians earlier in the day when their car was hit by security forces in the village of Khattab, near Hama. It was the second attack in a week carried out by army defectors to avenge the killing of civilians. On the same day, the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, called on other countries to intervene to help end the bloodshed.

Dec. 12 The death toll in the Syrian uprising has exceeded 5,000, a United Nations official said. The estimate came as the Syrian governmentcalled on voters to turn out for local elections it portrayed as good-faith reform efforts. But activists said that most citizens, observing a second day of a general strike, rejected the polls as irrelevant to a country in such turmoil.

Dec. 7 A defiant President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, speaking in a rare television interviewdenied ordering the bloody crackdown that has convulsed his land for the past nine months and disputed U.N. estimates of the number of protesters killed.

Dec. 6 Syrian rights groups reported at least 50 dead in government-sanctioned killings in Homs. The reports could not be independently verified because the government has severely restricted foreign access. Also, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met with members of the Syrian opposition in Geneva and the Obama administration returned its top envoy, Robert Ford, to Damascus.

Dec. 5 Syria said that it would agree to allow an Arab mission of military and civilian observers into the country as part of an Arab League proposal, but it attached a number of conditions, among them the cancellation of economic sanctions decreed by the league. The Arab League secretary general, Nabil al-Araby, suggested that the offer would provide no breakthrough in the diplomatic dispute.

Dec. 2 The United Nations high commissioner for human rights called for international intervention to protect Syrian civilians from the government’s crackdown amid warnings that the country is headed toward civil war.

Dec. 1 The United Nations declared that the death toll from nearly nine months of bloodshed has risen to more than 4,000 people, according to the U.N., and more soldiers were reported to have defected from the army to join an armed uprising against the government.


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.

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.

In October, Syrian dissidents formally established the Syrian National Council in what seemed to be the most serious attempt to bring together a fragmented opposition. 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. 

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 and Hamas, 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 Mr. Assad. 

The current chill is a significant change from the situation a few years ago, when Mr. 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 Mr. 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.

Turkish Opposition to Assad

Once one of Syria’s closest allies, Turkey is hosting an armed opposition group waging an insurgency against the government of President Assad, providing shelter to the commander and dozens of members of the group, the Free Syrian Army, and allowing them to orchestrate attacks across the border from inside a camp guarded by the Turkish military.

Turkish support for the insurgents comes amid a broader campaign to undermine Mr. Assad’s government. Turkey is expected to impose sanctions on Syria, and it has deepened its support for the Syrian National Council. But its harboring of leaders in the Free Syrian Army, a militia composed of defectors from the Syrian armed forces, may be its most striking challenge so far to Damascus.

On Oct. 26, 2011, the Free Syrian Army, living in a heavily guarded refugee camp in Turkey, claimed responsibility for killing nine Syrian soldiers, including one uniformed officer, in an attack in restive central Syria.

The group is too small to pose any real challenge to Mr. Assad’s government but support from Turkey underlines how combustible, and resilient, Syria’s uprising has proven. The country sits at the intersection of influences in the region — with Iran, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Israel — and Turkey’s involvement will be closely watched by Syria’s friends and foes.

Turkish officials say that their government has not provided weapons or military support to the insurgent group, nor has the group directly requested such assistance.

Source: The New York Times: