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CHEAT SHEET: What’s Going On In Syria?
November 16, 2011
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The last few days have been tumultuous ones in Syria -- which is saying something in a country that has been wracked by protest, bloodshed and conflict for most of the last year. This week has been described by the Al-Jazeera news network as one of the bloodiest periods since anti-government protests began in March, with at least 70 people killed since Monday. This comes on the heels of a series of dramatic developments in Syria's relationship with the outside world: Last weekend's decision by the Arab League to suspend the country's membership, the King of Jordan's statement that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad should step down, and the government of Turkey's threat to cut off Syria's electricity supply.

Today has brought new developments, as reports that deserters from Syria's army have struck a government complex outside of Damascus emerge, while France has announced it will withdraw its ambassador to the country and the Arab League meets to reaffirm its suspension decision.

With events moving so quickly, it can be hard to know exactly what's going in Syria. For casual observers, it appears to be part of a complicated stage of the so-called Arab Spring, in which the seemingly simple revolutions of Tunisia and Egypt have given way to war and regime change in Libya and ongoing violence and repression in states such as Bahrain, Yemen and, well, Syria. Even for those with more intimate knowledge of events in Assad's country, limited access by international media can make it difficult to know what's true and what isn't.

Here's a brief primer on the upheaval in Syria, and how to stay informed.

So how does Syria fit in to the bigger picture in the Middle East right now? The Syrian Arab Republic is on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea, bordered by Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Israel and Lebanon. The country is ruled by president Bashar al-Assad, who took over the presidency from his father, Hafez al-Assad, after the elder Assad passed away in 2000. Syria is virtually a one-party state, with the president claiming power as the head of the ruling Baath party. Hafez al-Assad was associated with heavy-handed repression and violence, and hopes were high when his Western-educated, doctor son came to office. But in spite of initial reforms, known as the Damascus Spring, Bashar al-Assad appears intent on holding on to power by whatever means necessary, and has ruthlessly repressed attempts to liberalize the government.

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What prompted the government's actions?
When Tunisians took to the streets to bring down their own rulers at the end of December, 2010, it kicked off a series of uprisings across the Middle East. Syrians themselves began to take to the streets in March, starting with protests over the torture of two students who were arrested after writing anti-government graffiti. Although Assad reacted tentatively at first - with suggestions of reform, and a decision to formally end the official state of emergency that had allowed authorities to crack down on dissent since the time of his father - he soon opted to use force, and by April had sent in tanks and soldiers against demonstrators.

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So the authorities have tried to stop the protests with force? For the most part, yes - the United Nations has said that at least 3,500 people have been killed in the country since March, most of which were anti-government protesters. (Pro-government soldiers and activists have also been killed.) In many ways, though, the government has failed in its attempts to stop the protesters, and the demonstrations have continued in spite of the best efforts of the authorities, which have been complicated by ethnic divisions, uncertainty in the ranks of soldiers carrying out the crackdown, and external pressure. However, even the largest demonstrations have been undermined by military sieges against opposition-held town, mass imprisonment, and reported torture and killings.

How has the international community reacted? There has been widespread condemnation of Assad's heavy-handed crackdown, and in March U.S. President Barack Obama announced sanctions against the ruling regime, but there has not been any major concerted effort to intervene. A United Nations Security Council resolution condemning the Syrian crackdown was vetoed by Russia and China, but there has been an increase in international pressure in recent weeks - on Saturday, 18 of 22 members of the Arab League voted to suspend Syria's membership in the organization, an unprecedented signal from one of the Middle East's most significant multilateral institutions, but one that has also resulted in even more unrest within Syria. Turkey, a former ally of Assad, has stepped up its criticism, with prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan saying that his government cannot support a Syrian future built on "the blood of the oppressed."

What are people inside Syria itself saying? Thanks to the government's effective refusal to allow international media to report on the protests, it can often be difficult to get a clear picture of what's going on inside the country. Most official reporting is done by pro-government outlets, and foreign news agencies have been left to sort out a varied group of sources, most of whom have to struggle to stay ahead of government intelligence agents.

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What about social media? Aren't the Arab uprisings known as the Facebook Revolution? Social media plays a very important role in ability of Syria's opposition to communicate, and for international media to find out what's going on. Protesters have been using Twitter, Facebook to document the uprising, and to present a window on what's happening. That said, Syrian government intelligence, known as the mukhabarat, has developed more sophisticated ways of both following and infiltrating these platforms, so it remains difficult to be follow them with complete certainty.

So what's the best way to keep informed?
If you are looking to get caught up on both the background of the Syrian uprising and current events, The New York Times has a helpful timeline of the uprising. Al Jazeera keeps a Syria live blog, with up-to-the-minute updates, and has some of the most timely reporting from the country. PBS Frontline has also recently posted an undercover news report from reporter Ramita Navai that goes behind the scenes in the country.

Anas Qtiesh is a Syrian blogger and translator based in the United States, who keeps close tabs on the social media coming from inside the country and the discussions from without. He also keeps one of the more reliable Twitter feeds, finding himself as he does in the relative safety of the West.

As for Twitter itself, there are a variety of feeds maintained by people within Syria that provide valuable access to information from inside the county. U.S. researcher Christopher Albon compiled a list of some of the best of them in the early stages of the uprising, but not all are still active: The BBC's Lina Sinjab, who had been reporting from Damascus, has been silent since August, while human rights activist Razan Zaitouneh has been silent since September. The rest of Albon's list remains active, however, and there are other sources worth following, including a feed maintained by Anonymous Syria, and Avaaz Arab Awakening. However, there have been some dummy Twitter feeds set up, purportedly by government agents, along with spam bots looking to overwhelm people following the hashtag #Syria.

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