From spray-paint to civil war: Syria explained in 5 questions
Where it all began, two years ago: A cameraman films the destroyed Revolution Youth Union branch, affiliated to the ruling Syrian Baath Party which was was destroyed by Syrian anti-government protesters, in the southern city of Daraa, Syria, Monday, March 21, 2011. (AP / Hussein Malla)
Published Sunday, April 14, 2013 11:54AM EDT
As the conflict in Syria continues to grow, there is increasing talk about how the outside world can stop a civil war in which an estimated 70,000 people have been killed.
According to recent reports from human rights activists, March marked the bloodiest month yet in Syria, with more than 6,000 documented deaths.
But as the conflict drags past the two-year point -- reached last month -- many still don't understand what's happening in Syria ... or why.
Here, CTVNews.ca provides a general understanding of the conflict via five basic questions.
Why did it start?
It began with graffiti.
In February 2011, a group of students spray-painted an anti-government remark on the side of their school in the southern city of Daraa.
"The people want the fall of the regime," they wrote, adding, "It's your turn, doctor" -- a reference to Syrian President Bashar Assad's training as an ophthalmologist.
Syrian troops captured the group -- numbering just over a dozen, including some teenagers -- before they interrogated and tortured them for weeks.
When friends, families and neighbours of the detainees peacefully gathered to demand their release, Syria's troops took a zero-tolerance approach, opening fire on the crowd.
News of the protest and the heavy-handed response soon spread. Thousands of Syrians took to the streets in solidarity.
The group of students became a symbol of the uprising and are often referred to as the "Children of Daraa."
But from spray-paint to civil war ... How did it escalate?
A month after the Daraa incident, Syrian President Bashar Assad fired his cabinet in an effort to quell the unrest.
Then, in his first public appearance since the uprising, Assad blamed the demonstrations on "foreign conspirators," including Israelis.
He also ignored a key demand of the protestors: a repeal of Syria's 48-year-old emergency law -- a wide-sweeping bill that had been limiting a number of individual freedoms for the past five decades, when Assad's political party first came to power.
(The law included bans on public gatherings and the free movement of people. It also allowed the government to detain anyone thought to be a threat to national security, and to try them in a special court outside Syria's standard justice system.)
The protests grew larger and louder.
Soon recognizing his mistake, Assad lifted the law in mid-April.
Too little, too late.
The number of Syrians involved in demonstrations snowballed, and a number of MPs from Assad's own Ba'ath party resigned soon after.
A few months later, in the summer of 2011, thousands of soldiers started to abandon the Assad regime. Coupled with civilian protesters -- who have been arming themselves -- a "rebel" opposition began to form.
The growing conflict also started to attract international attention, with the European Union - Syria's most important trading partner - being the first to impose embargoes on Syria.
In August 2011, the Mideast powerhouse of Saudi Arabia recalled its diplomats from the country - a rare showing of division between two Arab nations.
Libya, which has just gone through its own revolution in toppling dictator Moammar Gadhafi, followed suit when its interim government backed the rebels in October.
An enraged Assad fired back, suggesting that foreign intervention in Syria would lead to "another Afghanistan."
By end of 2011, the United Nations said 5,000 people in Syria had died.
The violence escalated dramatically in 2012 as Assad turned to heavier arsenal, including tanks and air raids. By the end of 2012, UN data suggests the number of causalities had ballooned to more than 60,000. Today, that number sits at 70,000 killed.
With the global community putting more pressure on Assad to step down, the calls go unheeded. In an interview that aired last November, Assad vowed to "live and die" in Syria.
So what is Bashar Assad's story?
Syrian President Bashar Assad has served as the country's leader since 2000, when he took over after the death of his father, Hafez Assad. The elder Assad had ruled for nearly 30 years, since 1971.
Bashar Assad was a medical school graduate who served as a physician in the army. He then left the country to take post-grad studies in London, but was brought back to Syria after his older brother - intended to be heir to the presidency - was killed in a car crash.
Assad was "elected" president in 2000 and again in 2007, but ran unopposed each time.
In spite of three decades of rule, Hafez Assad came from humble beginnings. He was born to a poor family of Alawite origin - a minority group in Syria.
Still, Hafez Assad rose to power through the military as a young adult after joining the Syrian wing of the Ba'ath party as a student activist. He entered a Syrian military academy at age 22 and graduated as a pilot.
After a period of political instability in the late 50s, all of Syria's political parties - including the Ba'ath - were dissolved.
While later living in Egypt, Hafez and other military officers resurrected the Syrian Ba'ath party and managed to overthrow the government in 1963 in a military coup.
Hafez first took over the Syrian Air Force, but went on to become minister of defence. Using his new role to grow his influence over the military, he plotted his own internal coup of the Ba'ath party, using the loss of the Golan Heights in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war to discredit his predecessor.
In taking the seat of power in 1971, Hafez Assad's regime did bring political stability to Syria, but did so through oppressive tactics. (At one point, Hafez fired his own brother from his post as vice-president in an apparent bid to make Bashar heir to the presidency.)
Like his father, Bashar Assad rose through the ranks via the military academy. He was appointed de facto leader of the Ba'ath Party upon Hafez's death.
Bashar started out pledging a more democratic society for Syria, ordering the release of 600 political prisoners. But hopes quickly faded throughout the 2000s as Assad responded with force to tensions, both within and outside of Syria's borders.
Who are the rebels then?
The rebels are various factions -- both civilian and military -- who are fighting for the Syrian people.
Following months of demonstrations, thousands of soldiers began defecting from Syria's military in the summer of 2011, launching attacks against the government and its security forces. They teamed up with civilians who, sick of seeing so much civilian bloodshed, had armed themselves.
A semi-formal opposition group formed in October, calling itself the Syrian National Council and touting itself as an alternative government to Assad's regime.
An umbrella group of various rebel factions, the SNC has one central goal: to overthrow Assad.
Other opposition groups have also popped up, including the Free Syrian Army and the National Co-ordination Committee.
Some suggest the inability for all opposition groups to work together has been detrimental to Syria freeing itself from dictatorship.
Still, over the past year, the rebels have made significant gains, capturing large swathes of land outside of major cities and controlling some areas in the northern city of Aleppo, Syria's largest city. They have also overrun major military bases, captured dams on the vital Euphrates River and came within a mile of the centre of Damascus, the seat of Assad's power.
What's going to happen next?
After watching the violence escalate over the past two years, much of the international community is still unsure of the best approach to take.
Late last month, EU leaders debated whether more weapons should be funnelled to Syria's rebel fighters, who have long-complained that their side is hampered by the failure of world powers to provide heavier arms to help them battle Assad's well-equipped military and air force.
The 27 nations ultimately could not reach a consensus.
France and Britain have been the most vocal in their support for better arming the rebels, saying more civilians will be protected.
The other side - most strongly represented by Germany - argues the country is already filled with guns and adding more to the pile is a recipe for disaster.
There is also fear that any arsenal will make it into the hands of the more extremist rebel fighters, who may further destabilize the situation and cause even more bloodshed.
The U.S. underwent a major policy shift recently in its approach to Syria, announcing it would provide $60 million in assistance directly to the rebels. It marked the first time America has provided aid directly to anti-Assad forces.
"We need to stand on the side of those in this fight who want to see Syria rise again in unity and see a democracy," U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said at the time.
The U.S. had formally recognized the rebels in December, soon after President Barack Obama was elected to his second term.
Last month, the Arab League went a step further in its support of the rebels, allowing a representative from the rebel opposition to take Syria's seat at its most recent summit.
Here at home, Ottawa refused to recognize the opposition as a legitimate organization. But Canada has contributed $48 million in aid to help resettle those displaced by the conflict.