|Members of the Syrian army have defected and are organising guerilla-style attacks on government forces [AFP]|
As the revolutionary spirit spread from Tunisia to Egypt and further across the region, analysts said Syria was unlikely to follow suit.
The country’s dreaded security apparatus, a foreign policy slanted against the West and President Bashar al-Assad’s relative popularity were cited as reasons as to why Syrians would remain quiet.
But following the arrest and torture of schoolchildren who were caught spray painting anti-government slogans in the southern city of Deraa, residents took to the streets in protest on March 18. The security forces responded to the peaceful protest with live fire – triggering ever larger demonstrations.
In the following weeks, non-violent protests demanding political reform and an end to corruption spread like wildfire across the country.
As the president blamed “armed gangs” and a foreign conspiracy for the uprising, the civilian death toll rose steadily, and the tone of the street changed. The president’s reform pledges were deemed as “too little, too late”, and the toppling of the Assad government became an unconditional demand.
Army units backed by tanks were deployed in a crackdown on the non-violent demonstrators that turned increasingly bloody as protests gathered strength.
With most foreign media banned from entering Syria, grainy amateur videos showing unarmed protesters being shot in the streets were posted online. Those videos became the main source of information for the outside world to learn about the bloodshed.
International pressure intensified as killings and arbitrary arrests became everyday news. Economic sanctions were followed by calls from the EU, the US, Turkey and other countries for Assad to step down. The Arab League suspended Syria’s membership and imposed tough sanctions.
However, the world community has remained divided over the issue – China and Russia have blocked action by the UN Security Council, and Lebanon’s Hezbollah-led government along with Iran remain allies of Damascus.
Despite protesters chanting “the Syrian people are one”, the uprising has sharpened divisions between the country’s Sunni Muslim majority and other religious sects. In the flashpoint city of Homs, dozens of tit-for-tat killings and kidnappings have been reported amid tensions between the Sunnis and the Alawite Shia offshoot that the president and much of the ruling elite belong to.
Gradually, what started as non-violent street protests have become more complicated as defected soldiers began to take up arms against government forces. An unknown number of defected soldiers have formed the Free Syrian Army, launching guerilla-style attacks on security forces.
The UN says more than 5,000 people, most of them civilians, have been killed in the uprising. Rights groups say troops have been ordered to shoot to kill unarmed protesters and that scores of people have died in custody.
The government says more than 2,000 military and police have been killed.
As the New Year came closer, violence surged in the northern province of Idlib, where much of the armed resistance by defected soldiers has centred. The Syrian National Council, which has emerged as the main opposition group, said more than 250 people were killed in a “massacre” in the Jabal al-Zawiyah area.
On December 23, the conflict took a new turn, with two car bombings in the capital, Damascus. Activists accused security forces of staging the attacks due to the upcoming Arab League observers’ visit. The government continued to blame the events on “terrorists”.
As tensions continue to escalate, it appears Syria will likely remain one of the top news stories of 2012.