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SYRIA A BACKGROUNDER ON THE WAR-TORN COUNTRY

The Syrian uprising began with protests held in early 2011, demanding release of political prisoners. In March 2011, security forces opened fire on protesters at a Day of Rage rally in southern city of Deraa, triggering days of violent unrest and more civilian deaths. Nearly two years into the conflict, the United Nations says that the death toll in Syria has surpassed 60,000. The crisis has spread beyond Syria. Neighbouring countries are deeply worried about the destabilizing effect of Syrian refugees and have appealed to international donors to increase humanitarian aid. According to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), the total number of refugees and individuals awaiting registration is over 670,000 while 4 million are in need of humanitarian aid. While the demonstrations in Syria were peaceful at the outset, and called largely for reform of President Bashar al-Assads regime, the Syrian governments violent response led to widespread defections from the Syrian military and provoked the creation of armed opposition. The conflict has become increasingly militarized as internal armed opposition groups have responded to

ongoing state and shabiha violence by increasing their attacks on pro-government forces, prompting the International Committee for the Red Cross to declare, in July 2013, the situation in Syria a civil war. The new status means that international humanitarian law applies to all areas where hostilities are taking place. Attacking or killing civilians and detainees constitutes war crimes, which opens the possibility that perpetrators could be held accountable should the situation in Syria be referred to the International Criminal Court. Sectarian violence is also increasing with some armed opposition groups committing human rights abuses against Alawite communities due to their perceived support for the government. Heightened inter-communal tensions have also triggered several deadly Sunni-Shia clashes in neighbouring Lebanon since mid-May 2013. History Once the centre of the Islamic Empire, Syria covers an area that has seen invasions and occupations over the ages, from Romans and Mongols to Crusaders and Turks. A country of fertile plains, high mountains and deserts, it is home to diverse ethnic and religious groups, including Kurds, Armenians, Assyrians, Christians, Druze, Alawite Shia and Arab Sunnis, the last of who make up a majority of the Muslim

population. Modern Syria gained its independence from France in 1946, but has lived through periods of political instability, driven by the conflicting interests of these various groups. From 1958-61, it united with Nassers Egypt, but an army coup restored independence before the panArab nationalist Baath (Renaissance) party took control in 1963, with the country coming under the control of a mainly Alawite faction of military leaders. The Baath government has seen authoritarian rule at home and a strong anti-Western policy abroad, particularly under President Hafez al-Assad from 1970 to 2000. In 1967 Syria lost the Golan Heights to Israel after the Arab defeat in the Six Day War. Civil war in neighbouring Lebanon in the 1970s allowed it to extend its political and military influence in that country. Syria pulled its forces out of Lebanon in 2005, having come under intense international pressure to do so after the assassination of Lebanese former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. A UN report implicated Syrian and pro-Syria Lebanese officials in the killing, although Damascus still denies any involvement. Following the death of Hafez al-Assad in 2000,

Syria underwent a brief period of relaxation. Hundreds of political prisoners were released, but real political freedoms and a shake-up of the Statedominated economy never materialised. In 2011-12 security forces used tanks, gunfire and mass arrests to try to crush anti-government street protests inspired by the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. These protests rapidly took on a more formal nature when the opposition began to organise political and military wings for a long uprising against the Baath government. As 2012 wore on, the stand-off escalated into civil war, with defections from the governing elite signalling the steady collapse of central authority. International isolation On the world stage, Syria became increasingly isolated in recent years, coming under fire for its support for insurgents in Iraq and over its role in Lebanon. That isolation showed brief signs of easing after efforts by France to bring Syria back into the international fold in 2008, but Syrias violation of a UN ban on arming the Lebanese Hezbollah militia led to the extension of US sanctions in May 2010. Further international sanctions were imposed amid the bloody repression of protests. By December 2012, the US, Turkey, Gulf States, France and Britain had recognised the main opposition

National Coalition of the Syrian Revolution as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people, signalling their belief that the Assad government is beyond redemption. The rise of the Al-Nusra front in rebel ranks, a radical Islamist militia allied to al-Qaeda, led to a marked cooling of international and regional support for the opposition in mid-2013, and allowed the government and its Hezbollah allies to launch a counter-offensive. The Assad governments have been among the most intransigent opponents of peace with Israel, and have supported several anti-Israel armed groups most notably Hezbollah and the Gaza-based Palestinian group Hamas. Hopes for reconciliation have repeatedly foundered over Syrias support for these groups and the vexed question of the Golan Heights. Syrias civil war continued unabated in mid-2013, amid an international deadlock on how to mediate the nearly two-and-a-half-year-old conflict that has killed more than 100,000 people and displaced millions more. The Syrian opposition remains divided between moderates and extremists, with divergent visions for a post-Assad government. The unrest, meanwhile, has proved a magnet for militant Islamists, including al-Qaeda affiliates and Iranianbacked Hezbollah. Refugee outflows, the threat of

weapons proliferation, and widening sectarian rifts have stoked fears that the civil war may engulf the wider region. Who are the Syrian opposition? The Syrian resistance remains highly fractured both politically and militarily, which has tempered foreign support and efforts to establish an alternative government. In November 2012, several opposition factions came together in Doha, Qatar, to form an umbrella group in exile, known as the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (SC). The group, which replaced the troubled Syrian National Council, has affirmed its commitment to a democratic, pluralistic Syria based on the rule of law and civil State. Sheikh Ahmad Moaz alKhatib, a moderate Islamist cleric and prominent national figure within Syria, was elected as the coalitions first President; he announced his resignation in April 2013, expressing frustration with what he said was lack of international support. Saudi-backed Ahmad Jarba, a former political prisoner, was elected as his successor in July 2013. The SC took the Assad regimes seat at the Arab League summit in Dubai and opened its first embassy, in Qatar, in March 2013. The United States recognizes the coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, hoping it will

serve as a counterweight to extreme Islamist groups fighting in Syria, including Jabhat al-Nusra, which is tied to al-Qaeda in Iraq, and Ahrar al-Sham. Some analysts, however, view the Syrian conflict as two parallel civil wars: one between the regime and the opposition, and the other between opposition moderates and extremists. Prospects for a UN-brokered peace agreement Lakhdar Brahimi, a veteran diplomat from Algeria, who replaced Kofi Annan as the UN-Arab League special envoy to Syria in September 2012, has pressed for the Geneva Plan, agreed to in 2012, which calls for a cease-fire, the formation of a transitional government and elections. US affirmed its support for a Geneva peace conference in August 2013, but offered little in the way of a strategy to bring the warring sides to the table. Rebels appear unwilling to consider a plan that does not include Assads ouster, while Assad is unwilling to go voluntarily. Moreover, neither side seems willing to negotiate from a perceived position of weakness. Washington and Moscow disagree over who should attendTehran being a point of contention. The Arab League suspended Syrias membership and imposed economic sanctions on Damascus in

November 2011. The following January, the League called for Assad to step down and requested a supporting resolution from the UN Security Council, which was vetoed by Russia and China. Turkey broke with Damascus after the government crackdown intensified, and has since led calls for Assad to step down. Relations reached a boiling point in October 2012 when Turkey shelled Syrian targets after a series of cross-border mortar attacks. Ankara has hosted elements of the opposition and facilitated arms shipments to Syrian territory. Arab governments, including Gulf States and Jordan, have provided arms and financial and diplomatic support to the opposition. Sudan, vying for influence and profits, has supplied some of the military equipment paid for by Arab donor states despites its close ties with Iran and China. The US had designated Syria a State sponsor of terrorism in 1979, subjecting it to sanctions and cutting off most US aid. The United States has imposed several rounds of sanctions since then. As President Barack Obama called for Assads resignation in August 2011, he signed an Executive Order which froze all assets of the Syrian government, prohibited US persons from doing business with the regime, and banned imports of Syrian petroleum products. Washington closed its embassy in Damascus and withdrew Ambassador

Ford in February 2012 amid an escalating assault on Homs. The European Union has passed numerous rounds of sanctions on the Assad regime since the March 2011 uprising. Sanctions include asset freeze, travel bans, embargoes on equipment that might be used for internal repression or communications surveillance, and restrictions on importing Syrian oil and exporting oil-production equipment. The EU eased restrictions in April 2013, allowing the import of Syrian crude oil from opposition forces in order to bolster their finances. The following month, it relaxed financial restrictions, to assist rebel forces and establish economic ties with civilians in rebel-controlled areas. Under UK and French pressure, significant parts of the arms embargo, which had been in place since May 2011, were allowed to expire in June 2013. In July 2013, the European Union designated Hezbollahs armed wing a terrorist organization, due in part to the Lebanese militant groups tactical support to the Syrian regime. Both Russia and China have significant economic and military relations with Syria. As permanent members of the UN Security Council, the duo has vetoed three resolutions designed to isolate the

Assad regime. Analysts say the diplomatic opposition stems from concerns of a Westernbacked military intervention similar to those in Libya and the Ivory Coast. Russia says it remains committed to the Geneva process, but continues to provide the regime military support. Regional implications Many analysts are concerned that the conflict in Syria is a brewing proxy war, with a loosely knit Sunni coalitionincluding the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaeda and other Islamist groups; Gulf States; and Turkeychallenging a Shia axis comprising Syrian Alawites, Hezbollah, Iraq, and Iran. Meanwhile, Syria's Kurdish minority has fought regime forces, some advocating for an autonomous region. Massoud Barzani, the President of the semiautonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, has threatened intervention in Syria to protect Kurds against Islamist anti-government militias. Iran, a long-time Syrian ally, maintains close ties to the regime in Damascus, providing Assad with both military and economic assistance. Adding to the political complexity is Hezbollah's active role in fighting. Israel, concerned that Assads weapons stocks might come into Hezbollahs possession, has conducted four air strikes against Syria in 2013.

The Assad regimes tenuous grasp on arms depots has fostered international concern that chemical weapons could come under the control of al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, or other non-State actors. In early 2013, the regime and opposition forces accused each other of using sarin gas. As of August 2013, a UN team was granted restricted access to investigate the alleged attacks. Economic impact Business, farming and trade have been hard hit by economic sanctions imposed by the Arab League, the European Union, the United States and neighbouring Turkey. Syrias two most vital sectors tourism and oilhave ground to a halt. The IMF says Syrias economy contracted by 2% in 2011, while the value of the Syrian pound has crashed to its lowest level in black-market trading. Even on the official exchange rates, the Syrian pound has plummeted by more than 60% against the dollar. Inflation is also increasing rapidly, with the official rate up to 11% in March 2012. Unemployment is estimated to have risen to more than 20% since the uprising began. In February 2012, the government doubled customs duties, which analysts said would lead to smuggling and price rise. Towns and cities, including the capital Damascus, are suffering electricity cuts, and

critical products like heating oil and staples like milk powder are scarce.