Middle East

Syria unrest: Why the world has waited so long

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Media captionHillary Clinton: "The transition to democracy in Syria has begun, and it is time for Assad to get out of the way"

The pressure on Syria's Bashar al-Assad to step down is now intense: from the United States, from Europe, but also - perhaps more importantly - from his neighbours, including Turkey, and from his fellow Arabs, led by Saudi Arabia.

President Obama and European leaders have been widely criticised for being slow to cut Assad loose and to abandon him.

A large part of their defence until now has been that it is not moral to pledge support to protesters in any country when they face death at the hands of a dictator, unless you mean to back them decisively.

Politicians point to a deep sense of guilt about the encouragement from the West to the Kurds of Northern Iraq in 1990 and 1991 to rise up against Saddam Hussein after his invasion of Kuwait.

It was followed by failure to protect them when the Iraqi dictator wreaked his terrible vengeance.

Overwhelming force

The US and its allies still rule out any military intervention in Syria - even to protect civilians - but the new calculation in Washington and major European capitals is that the balance has now tipped against Assad's political survival.

The UN's head of human rights, Navi Pillay, has said the Syrian government may be guilty of crimes against humanity.

In a report, the commissioner said the UN Security Council should consider referring the case to the International Criminal Court.

Despite the growing pressure, there are no signs that President Assad is ready to resign.

He has few allies left - and reliance on Iran is unlikely to save him. That is not to say he will not still try to rely on overwhelming force.

It worked for his father before him - but the difference this time is that so few countries now judge that regional stability would be at grave risk if the Assad family finally lost power.

In fact, most governments now take the opposite view - that it is the Assad family which represents present danger.

Syria's anti-government protests, inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt, first erupted in mid-March after the arrest of a group of teenagers who spray-painted a revolutionary slogan on a wall. The protests soon spread, and the UN says 3,500 people have died in the turmoil - mainly protestors but also members of Syria's security forces - while thousands more have been injured.
Although the arrest of the teenagers in the southern city of Deraa first prompted people to take to the streets, unrest has since spread to other areas, including Hama, Homs, Latakia, Jisr al-Shughour and Baniyas. Demonstrators are demanding greater freedom, an end to corruption, and, increasingly, the ousting of President Bashar al-Assad.
The government has responded to the protests with overwhelming military force, sending tanks and troops into towns and cities. Amateur video footage shows tanks and snipers firing on unarmed protesters. There may have been an armed element to the uprising from its early days and army deserters have formed the Free Syrian Army.
Some of the bloodiest events have taken place in the northern town of Jisr al-Shughour. In early June, officials claimed 120 security personnel were killed by armed gangs, however protesters said the dead were shot by troops for refusing to kill demonstrators. As the military moved to take control of the town, thousands fled to neighbouring Turkey, taking refuge in camps.
Although the major cities of Damascus and Aleppo have seen pockets of unrest and some protests, it has not been widespread - due partly to a heavy security presence. There have been rallies in the capital - one with an enormous Syrian flag - in support of President Assad, who still receives the backing of many in Syria's middle class, business elite and minority groups.
The Assad family has been in power for 40 years, with Bashar al-Assad inheriting office in 2000. The president has opened up the economy, but has continued to jail critics and control the media. He is from the minority Alawite sect - an offshoot of Shia Islam - but the country's 20 million people are mainly Sunni. The biggest protests have been in Sunni-majority areas.
The uprising has cost 3,500 lives, according to the UN and Jordan's King Abdullah says that President Assad should now step down. The Arab League has suspended Syria's membership and voted for sanctions. The EU has frozen the assets of Syrian officials, placed an arms embargo on Syria and banned imports of its oil. But fears remain of Syria collapsing into civil war.
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