A picture of Syrian President Bashar Assad hangs on unused sand bags placed by the Syrian amry close to the city of Harasta on Wednesday
Photo by Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images.
UPDATE: The U.N. General Assembly overwhelmingly voted in favor of an Arab League-sponsored resolution late Thursday afternoon condemning Bashar al-Assad's violent crackdown on Syria's protesters in the 11-month conflict that increasingly appears to be spiraling into a full-blown civil war.
The vote in the international forum was 137-12 with 17 abstentions, reports the Associated Press.
Russia and China, who vetoed a similar resolution in the Security Council nearly two weeks ago, unsurprisingly voted against the resolution.
When Russia and China vetoed the condemnatory Security Council resolution, they also inadvertently gave Assad’s forces a green light to intensify its violent crackdown, most notably on the resistance epicenter of Homs.
General Assembly resolutions are not binding, unlike ones from the Security Council, which carry the possibility of the use of force if passed. The resolution does, however, carry the symbolic weight of international criticism toward the Syrian government.
Earlier on Thursday, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced that "almost certain" crimes against humanity had been committed by Assad’s forces in Syria.
"We see neighborhoods shelled indiscriminately," Ban told reporters in Vienna. "Hospitals used as torture centers. Children as young as ten years old jailed and abused. We see almost certain crimes against humanity."
Feb. 15: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has set a date for a referendum later this month on a new constitution as Syrian forces raid a neighborhood of Damascus and continue attacks on opposition stronghold cities Homs and Hama.
Reuters reports that the bombardment of Homs reached its 13th day as Syrian forces continued to shell the city's Sunni Muslim neighborhoods.
In Hama, a city with a long history of opposition to the Syrian regime, government forces used armored vehicles and anti-aircraft guns to fire on residential neighborhoods, according to activists.
In Damascus, elite forces set up roadblocks, raided houses, and made arrests in a residential neighborhood of the city, with residents reporting that the forces were looking for activists and members of the Free Syrian Army.
As the New York Times explains, a peaceful, nation-wide vote in Syria was nearly inconceivable even before violence in the country escalated in recent weeks. The Feb. 26 referendum addresses some of the earliest demands of Syrian opposition activists in the 11-month uprising against Assad's regime, but since then, the activists—and many Western and Arab countries—have called instead for the resignation of Assad, saying that a government-controlled reform process is not adequate for change in the country.
Monday, Feb. 13: Mortar and tank fire resumed in two neighborhoods of the Syrian city of Homs Monday after the Arab League vowed this weekend to step up support of the country's opposition groups.
Reuters reports that activists say 23 people were killed in Homs on Sunday. More than 300 have died since Feb. 3, when the bombardment of the city, an opposition stronghold, began.
Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, who visited Syria last week, has responded to the Arab League's plan for Syria, calling for a cease-fire agreement from both sides before a U.N. peacekeeping mission is deployed, the New York Times reports.
Sunday, Feb. 12: Arab League foreign ministers agreed to a draft resolution that calls on the U.N. Security Council to create a joint peacekeeping force for Syria to replace the monitoring group that failed to put a dent in the violence, reports the Associated Press.
“How long will we stay as onlookers to what is happening to the brotherly Syrian people, and how much longer will we grant the Syrian regime one period after another so it can commit more massacres against its people?” Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said.
Meanwhile, Tunisia said it would host the first “Friends of Syria” contact group meeting on Feb. 24, reports Reuters.
Arab foreign ministers are involved in “intensive talks” with Russia and China but there seems to be little chance that Syria’s Bashar al-Assad would accept peacekeepers. In the meantime, the Arab League agreed to increase economic sanctions and boost both political and financial support for the Syrian opposition, notes al-Jazeera.
Earlier, al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri released a video recording Sunday in which he told Syrians they can’t rely on the West or Arab governments to help their uprising, reports Reuters. In the video, titled “Onwards, Lions of Syria,” Zawahri calls Assad a “butcher” and urges Muslims in the region to help the Syrian rebels.
“Our people in Syria don't rely on the West or the United States or Arab governments and Turkey,” Zawahri said. “You know better what they are planning against you. Our people in Syria, don't depend on the Arab League and its corrupt governments supporting it."
Saturday, Feb. 11: Three gunmen killed the head of a Syrian military hospital as he left his home in the capital, Damascus. Three men reportedly ambushed and shot Dr. Issa al-Khouli, the state-run news agency reported, blaming members of an “armed terrorist group.” It is thought to be the first assassination of a senior military official since the uprising began almost a year ago. “Assassinations of the government’s supporters and opponents have previously taken place in embattled cities like Homs and Hama, but Damascus had been relatively quiet until recent weeks, when reports of skirmishing in some neighborhoods began to surface,” reports the New York Times.
U.S. officials reportedly believe that al-Qaida in Iraq was behind two recent bombings in Damascus as well as suicide bombings that struck the city of Aleppo Friday, reports McClatchy. U.S. intelligence reports appear to back claims by Assad’s government that foreign terrorist involvement in the uprising is growing. The opposition had said the regime planned the bombings itself to discredit the movement. The assassination could be one of several “ominous signs that al-Qaida is joining in the uprising against the Syrian regime,” writes the BBC’s Jim Muir.
The government’s assault on Homs, which has killed at least 300 people since Feb. 4, continued Saturday, according to al-Jazeera. Violence between pro- and anti-government forces were also reported “just outside the capital.” There are also reports that army defectors killed 10 soldiers Friday.
Meanwhile, Russia continues to insist it would not support an Arab peace plan that is currently making its way around the United Nations. The Arab League is set to meet Sunday to discuss the idea of a joint monitoring mission with the United Nations, reports Reuters. There’s also increased pressure on Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to appoint a special envoy to promote negotiations in Syria.
Friday, Feb. 10: Two explosions rocked security compounds in the Syrian city of Aleppo early Friday, killing 25 and injuring another 175, according to the country's health ministry.
The Associated Press reports that the city has largely stood by President Bashaar al-Assad during the ongoing uprising against his rule, and that Syrian officials have blamed the apparent car bombs, which targeted sites connected to the country's military and police forces, on "terrorists."
Explanations for the blasts in Aleppo are playing out similarly to the aftermath of two bombings in Damascus this past December, as the New York Times notes: While the Syrian government says al-Qaida or a group associated with it is responsible, opposition leaders claim the blasts are the work of the government itself in an effort to distract from the weeklong assault on the city of Homs by Syrian forces, which have left hundreds dead according to activists.
Meanwhile, CNN reports, tens of thousands of Syrians are participating in Friday's "Russia Is Killing Our Children" nationwide protest. Protesters are angry with Russia's decision to veto a U.N. Security Council resolution last weekend that would have condemned the violence in Syria, and a visit from a Russian envoy earlier this week. Russia has doubled down on its support for Assad's regime on Friday, backing up the Syrian government's claim that opposition groups in the country are foreign-influenced and -armed.
Post Thursday, Feb. 9: Syrian forces resumed rocket and mortar attacks in Homs on Thursday, killing at least 50 people, according to activists. Supplies are running low for civilians in the city, who have been living without electricity or running water, and countries struggling to find a way to end the crisis are turning their attention to civilian aid.
International leaders have continued to strongly condemn the violence in the country. On Thursday, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told reporters he believes the "appalling brutality" in Homs is a "grim harbinger of things to come." But at the same time, the failed U.N. Security Council resolution from this weekend, along with the sudden increase in violence this week, seems to have left few leaders with a plan to halt the acute violence.
The Syrian government says they're battling armed groups of fighters with foreign backing, but their attacks have caused significant civilian casualties.
Reuters reports that the U.S., the Arab League, and Turkey (who until recently was an ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad) are all coordinating their own efforts to provide civilian aid to Homs, meeting with their allies over the next several days.
The attacks are concentrated on neighborhoods of Homs that are controlled by opposition groups in the country. As Reuters notes, those neighborhoods are also largely Sunni Muslim, and the Syrian government attackers are led mostly by Assad's Alawite ruling religious minority. Alawi is a sect of Islam usually associated with Shiite Muslims.
The Los Angeles Times has a run-down of the sectarian bent to the current violence in Syria.
Post Wednesday, Feb. 8: With the current plan to bring an end to months of violence in Syria languishing, the United States has begun considering other options.
CNN reports that the U.S. military has begun what's called a “scoping exercise” to determine what options are on the table for possible military action in the country. Essentially, they're looking at the resources they have available and assessing the risks of various military options.
Syria has been steeped in violence for months as the government there brutally cracks down on pro-democracy opposition forces in the country. That violence has escalated in the past few days with scores of people reported killed by Syrian military forces in and around Homs, a city believed to be an opposition stronghold.
The United States is reportedly considering military interventions that range from humanitarian aid to supporting opposition groups to an (unlikely) military strike. The unnamed U.S. officials speaking to CNN gave few details of the specific plans. They, like Obama and the State Department, stressed that the United States prefers a diplomatic solution to the crisis.
There is widespread opposition to Libya-style military action in Syria. The Arab League opposes it, but have found their efforts to encourage diplomacy thwarted recently. At the end of January, the League called for a U.N. Security Council resolution supporting their recommendation for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step aside and for opposition leaders to begin talks with the government there, but that resolution was vetoed by China and Russia this weekend.
Earlier this week, the United States, Italy, Britain, France, and the Gulf Cooperation Council (a union of countries bordering the Persian Gulf) recalled their ambassadors to Syria citing security concerns. The United States also closed their embassy in Damascus.
Russian envoy Sergey Lavrov visited the country on Tuesday to bring a version of the Arab League plan—which includes a call for opposition leaders to engage with the government diplomatically, something they've so far resisted doing—to Assad and his regime. Russia has strong economic ties to Syria and a friendly relationship with President Assad. After Lavrov's meeting with Assad in Syria, Russia announced that the Syrian vice president was willing to sit down with opposition forces and engage in a dialogue, as the Times reports. But after the U.N. veto, their efforts are being met with suspicion and scorn by many in the west.
In fact, Western powers are blaming Russia and China for encouraging the Syrian government to step up their attacks with the U.N. veto. U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice warned after the U.N. vote that Russia and China “will have any future blood spill on their hands.”