Syria | Government Forces Crack Down on Protesters
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Government Forces Crack Down on Protesters
The anti-government protest movement that swept through the Middle East in early 2011 also engulfed Syria. Syria, however, was spared the unrest until mid-March, when the arrest of about a dozen school-age children for painting anti-government graffiti in the southeast town of Dara'a sparked outrage, prompting citizens to take to the streets in protest. Demonstrations broke out throughout the country, with protesters calling for the release of political prisoners, an end to pervasive corruption, the lifting of the emergency law that has stood since 1963, and broader civil rights. On March 25, the government reneged on a promise not to use force against the protesters, opening fire on demonstrators in the south. As many as 60 people were killed.The political crisis deepened in the following days, and on March 29, President Assad's cabinet resigned. Massive protests and the crackdown by police continued, and by April 18 as many as 200 protestors had been killed. As the opposition movement gained strength, President Assad tried to balance suppression and compromise, offering some reform and lifting the emergence law while forbidding protests "under any banner whatsoever."
Assad in fact did attempt to thwart protests, deploying troops to several cities across Syria and brutally cracking down on protesters. By late May about 850 protesters had been killed by forces. The continued suppression led the Obama administration to impose sanctions on Assad and six other high-ranking officials. Assad intensified the attacks on protesters in early August, unleashing tanks, armored vehicles, and snipers on the restive city of Hama, historically a breeding ground for anti-government sentiment. By the end of the siege, casualties reached about 1,700. The particularly brutal assaults prompted widespread international condemnation, even from Syria's Arab neighbors. Indeed, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Kuwait removed their ambassadors from Damascus. In mid-August, Obama issued a statement demanding that Assad resign and increased sanctions against Syria, freezing all Syrian assets held under U.S. jurisdiction and banning U.S. citizens and companies from doing business with the Syrian government. In addition, the UN released a report accusing Syria of crimes against humanity.
As international condemnation of Assad intensified, the opposition, which had previously lacked organization, in October formed the Syrian National Council, a diverse group of dissidents and opposition leaders who had the shared goal of ousting Assad. Turkey, once a close ally of Syria, endorsed the council and allowed members of the Free Syrian Army, a militia of army deserters, to set up camp within its borders. On Nov. 2, Assad agreed to a deal brokered by the Arab League to stop killing civilians, begin talks with the opposition, and withdraw forces from the streets. But Assad flouted the agreement and actually increased the attacks. In response, the Arab League suspended Syria's membership and later imposed sanctions on Syria, which included a travel ban on several high-ranking officials, the freezing of Syrian government assets in other Arab nations, and a halt on all commercial transactions with the Syrian government and central bank. It was the first time the group has taken such action against a member. In addition, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia called for Assad to step down.