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Syrian Protests One Year Later

031212-1 Open your local newspaper to the international news section, and Syria is likely in the headlines. What is happening in this Middle Eastern country the size of North Dakota? Why has it captured the attention of humanitarian organizations and world leaders? Why are news agencies worldwide reporting on the situation?

Syria is the nexus of the Middle East. The Mediterranean Sea laps its western edge, giving it easy access to international shipping. Five Middle Eastern countries — Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Iraq, and Turkey — cradle it, making it a key partner in the region. Rich in crude oil, Syria is an important international trade partner, especially with countries in the European Union, China, and Russia.

Syria has a unique and dynamic culture. Often described as the "Cradle of Civilization," Syria’s history stretches back to 10,000 BC. Over time, the region has been occupied by the Persians, Greeks, Romans, and Ottomans. Its artisans and scholars influenced the world’s greatest cultures. This rich and significant culture and history are largely forgotten amid today's violent political chaos and growing humanitarian crisis. Nearly a year ago, Syrian protesters called for the release of under-age political prisoners and demanded greater constitutional freedoms. Those protests have mutated into what some call a civil war.

On Saturday, March 10, 2012, Kofi Annan, special envoy of the United Nations and the Arab League, met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to discuss a peaceful resolution to the violence. Annan’s mission was an up-hill battle; President al-Assad rejected the peace overture, claiming he is fighting armed terrorists funded by foreigners. Opposition leaders called for more than a ceasefire; they want Syrian leaders to be held accountable for the violence. This week, as humanitarian organizations monitor Syria for human rights violations and world leaders look for ways to end the violence, you will examine the situation in Syria.

The State Department File

031212-2 Familiarize yourself with Syria by reading the U.S. State Department’s Background Notes. Use the map and notes to learn more about Syria’s history, politics, and government. Use the table of contents along the left margin to maneuver through the sections.

You might use these questions as a guide for your research: What is the capitol of Syria? What type of government does Syria have? How might the type of government have led to unrest? What are Syria’s largest industries and exports, and how might these explain the international interest in and response to the Syrian crisis?

When did Syria achieve independence and from what country? Who is the President? Describe the series of events that enabled him to assume that position.

The Situation

For a closer look at how the events of the past year have unfolded, turn your attention to the Associated Press interactive, Syria: Violence continues across the country.

Begin by opening the Key Events tab, and then selecting Latest News. Use the fast rewind button on the lower left to cue the timeline to January 31, 2011. As you explore the timeline, consider: When did protests begin and what was the initial government response? Did the government make changes to protesters demands? What was the international response to Syria’s unrest? How have other Arab nations responded? How and why has Syria’s standing been affected within the Arab League? What has the United Nations attempted and why have their efforts been unsuccessful? Write a brief essay suggesting two courses of action for the international community.

Next, open the Q&A feature. What challenges face the opposition? Why has the international community not armed the opposition? What is your opinion about that aspect of this situation and why?

Learn more about the man the opposition hopes to oust Presiden Bashar al-Assad. Open the tab titled Bashar Assad to view a slideshow of his time in office. What questions would you have for President al-Assad? What advice would you offer him?

031212-3 Take a closer look at Syria via two maps, by opening the second tab, Locations of Violence. Pay particular attention to Homs, where much of the fighting has occurred. Then, open the tab titled Growing Isolation to see which Arab League nations voted for or against suspending Syria’s membership, and to see which countries continue to ally themselves with Syria.

Human Rights and Humanitarian Aid

The Associated Press timeline referenced the work of two international groups: Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Both independent, neutral organizations are working in Syria.

Consider for a moment the term, human rights. What does this include? Why are human rights important? Why is it necessary to monitor them? What are examples of human rights violations?

Human Rights Watch monitors human rights around the world. They focus on countries in which violations are known or suspected, representing those who are oppressed and holding oppressors accountable for their actions. Learn more about how Human Rights Watch works by watching the short video, Uprising, and then reading its mission statement. In their World Report 2012: Syria, Human Rights Watch outlines the human rights violations of which Syrian leaders are accused. Finally, watch the two videos, "Shoot to Kill" Ordersand Homs, Syria — Update. According to HRW, what are the most common abuses in Syria? Why does Human Rights Watch consider these actions "crimes against humanity"? What are some challenges Human Rights Watch faces as it attempts to chronicle human rights conditions in Syria and worldwide?  Select one excerpt or image from the Human Rights Watch site to respond to and share.

Like Human Rights Watch, the International Committee of the Red Cross works internationally. However, the ICRC's aim is to provide humanitarian aid. Read this organization’s mission and mandate. What is humanitarian aid? Learn more about the services the ICRC provides, including reuniting families and water and habitat.

The Red Cross is working in Syria to provide food, water, and medical aid. Their work has been hampered by Syrian officials who have denied the Red Cross access to key locations. The ICRC maintains a website dedicated to their work in Syria. Read the latest update, and visit the ICRC in Syria page for facts and figures. Watch films about the Red Cross’ thwarted attempts to enter Baba Amr, and negotiations to arrange cease-fires (choose preview film to watch online).