Peaceful Protests and Crackdowns in Syria

Protests in Syria began as candlelight vigils in early February 2011, a sympathetic response to the escalating rebellion in Egypt. HRW released the first reports of violence against demonstrators on February 9, 2011, and stated that Syrian activists were urging civilians to request more freedoms from their government. Protests by Syrian civilians against their government in the spring of 2011 were peaceful, but were met with violent attacks from Syrian security forces, leading to the deaths of multiple protesters.

To quell the rising tide of civilian unrest, Assad announced on March 25, 2011, that the country's 48-year-old state of emergency law would be lifted, and human rights issues would be addressed by the government. The emergency law included a ban on political protest. Government officials hinted that Assad would be willing to make other concessions, such as releasing political prisoners, allowing the creation of new political parties and increasing government employee salaries. These measures were viewed as an attempt to quiet civilian unrest. Assad's announcement came days after 36 protesters were killed by police and other protesters were arrested. Civilian protests escalated into violence in late March 2011, when protesters set fire to a police station and local Baath party headquarters. The Syrian government then released 260 political detainees to appease the protesters.

Emergency rule officially ended on April 21, 2011. Although that action legalized peaceful protests, the Syrian government requested that civilians discontinue the rebellions. Students continued to openly protest against the government, and security forces responded with aggressive action. On April 22, 2011, Syrian security forces opened fire on a peaceful crowd of protesters, killing more than 75. The UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) estimated on April 29, 2011, that 500 protesters had been killed by security forces since March 2011. By June 2011, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, estimated that the number of protesters killed had increased to approximately 1,100 while 10,000 people had been placed in detention.

In a speech at Damascus University on June 20, 2011, Assad claimed that an unidentified group of terrorists was responsible for the vandalism, robberies and murders plaguing the country. Assad also accused the international media of manipulating civilians and instigating rebellion in the hopes of achieving better video footage. Assad urged citizens to participate in new government reforms, including the creation of a new constitution, instead of continuing to protest. However, civilian demonstrations continued, and AI reported in August 2011 that over 88 detained protesters had been tortured and then killed in custody.

On November 4, 2011, the Syrian government classified the country's protesters as "insurgents" and stated that those who had revolted against the government could possibly qualify for amnesty if they turned themselves in to authorities by November 12, 2011. The frequency and intensity of the protests did not diminish, and the UN Committee Against Torture accused Syrian security forces of detaining and torturing children. Civilian protests were divided between violent and nonviolent activism, and on December 15, 2011, the Syrian army opened fire on a group of unarmed protesters. While the army turned to increasing violence against protesters as a method of enforcement, the government continued to release detainees as a means of appeasement. Over 552 detainees were released on January, 8, 2012. However, human rights groups estimated that as of January 2012, approximately 37,000 additional detainees remained imprisoned.

On February 26, 2012, the Syrian government held a referendum on whether to adopt a new constitution. Civilian protests continued up until the vote, and 89 people were killed the day before the referendum. Although many international organizations feared that the referendum was an empty gesture, hope remained that new provisions for freedom of speech, press, assembly and association would help quiet the rebellion.

Both peaceful and violent rebellions continued into the spring of 2012, and HRW released a report stating that security forces had escalated from using violence to halt protests to summarily executing protesters. HRW estimated that over 100 civilians and Syrian opposition fighters had been executed during attacks in late March and early April 2012. Over 80 women and children were shot at close range on May 29, 2012.

Detainee releases continued as a means of placating protesters. Over 500 prisoners were released in May 2012. The government formally announced the prisoner releases on June 1, 2012, following outcry over the May 29 massacre. As pressure from citizens and the international community increased, Assad denied that the government had any involvement with the May 29 massacre. He instead blamed foreign extremists and terrorists.

Amid concerns that the Syrian army and security forces were using sexual violence against detainees, Assad agreed to a peace plan on July 9, 2012, brokered by UN Joint Special Envoy Kofi Annan. The plan outlined steps for ending the violence, allowing access to humanitarian and human rights groups and encouraging political dialogue. However, security forces continued to attack protesters, with 200 civilians massacred on July 15, 2012. The UN suggested in June 2012 that over 850,000 Syrian citizens were receiving food assistance and over 100,000 had been displaced from their homes.

By fall 2012, increasing violence could be blamed on both the Syrian government and rebel forces. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon stated that, as of September 2012, over 1.2 million people had been displaced from their homes and 225,000 refugees had fled to surrounding nations.

The conflict continued to escalate, and the UN released proof in November 2012 that rebel forces had been summarily executing captured and surrendered Syrian soldiers. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights estimated in January 2013 that approximately 60,000 people had been killed since the conflict began in March 2011, although the death toll is likely to increase as better estimates are received. In March 2013, human rights organizations accused the Syrian government of using banned cluster bombs and chemical weapons against civilians.

In May 2013, the Syrian government killed up to 100 people in the village of Bayda. In August 2013, rockets filled with chemical agents were fired around Damascus, killing hundreds of people. The US and its allies blamed the Syrian government for those attacks, and as a result, Assad agreed with the UN and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to destroy Syria's chemical weapon arsenal. However, chemical attacks occurred again between April and July 2014 in villages in northern Syria. In January 2014, the government of Qatar released a report that details the "systematic torture and killing of detained persons by the agents of the Syrian government" and suggests that the Syrian government had committed "war crimes" and "crimes against humanity." Furthermore, in November 2015, Amnesty International released a report detailing how the Syrian government has concealed the whereabouts of 58,000 civilian detainees who suffer from torture, disease, and eventually death.


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