March 5th, 2012
11:56 AM ET

Syria in crisis: Gruesome violence escalates as attacks expand across country

Editor's Note: After nearly a year of conflict in Syria, opposition activists say regime forces are ramping up lethal action across the country.

The following is a look at where the conflict in Syria stands, how it started, and how other nations are reacting.

Violence increases as cities are pummeled

At first the brutality of the attacks seemed isolated. There were harrowing accounts of devastating shelling, sniper fire and executions in the Syrian city of Homs. There were bodies strewn about the streets. Remaining families huddled in makeshift shelters hoping to somehow make it out alive.

And now, the people of Homs are not the only ones.

The brutal campaign of death is spreading in a fresh wave of violence, opposition activists tell CNN’s Nic Robertson.

While earlier attacks seemed focused on specific areas, like the neighborhood of Baba Amr in Homs, Robertson reports that now the violence and death seem to be widespread throughout the country. You could name nearly any major city in the north, south, east or west of Syria now and find tales of slaughter and unrelenting violence coming from each of them.

First there was the rocket attack on the western city of Rastan over the weekend. But now the regime’s lethal attention has apparently turned to cities across the country, opposition activists said.

It appears the Syrian regime is stepping up raids and arrests just about everywhere, detaining hundreds of civilians in the past two days, the Syrian Network for Human Rights, an opposition activist group, said Monday.

And perhaps tactics inside Syria are changing too. Videos show a disturbing development that seems to indicate jihad has come to Syria. The videos show varying attacks in different parts in Syria, mainly on government forces, that closely resemble jihadist attacks that are the hallmark of al Qaeda. They are recorded by a cameraman and fully capture the carnage.

It could be seen as a sign that Syria's protests are morphing into an armed uprising. The Syrian government has long claimed that it is fighting terrorists. But so far, few of the opposition fighters have fit the stereotype of terrorists. Most activists are unarmed, and the Free Syrian Army has denied links with Islamic extremism.

Western officials say al Qaeda in Iraq has sent a small number of fighters into Syria. Their experience makes them some of the most effective fighters against the Syrian military, but their presence also makes international intervention even more problematic. It means the fledgling Free Syrian Army may be graduating to more ambitious attacks.

A group that released one of the videos calls itself The Nusra Front to Protect the Levant. And this seems the most credible claim of responsibility for one of the most devastating attacks yet on the Syrian military.

This new trend could mean even more violence, as a more armed and ambitious opposition tries to fend off fresh waves of attacks from the Syrian regime.

A battle destroys Baba Amr; fresh claims of executions

For weeks we’ve heard about horrific actions inside Homs and its Baba Amr neighborhood, where CNN reporters witnessed some of the brutality firsthand. Baba Amr had been one of the more prominent pockets of anti-regime resistance before many of the activists retreated following nearly three weeks of constant shelling.

Baba Amr was an opposition stronghold where activists coordinated and told the world about their activities, but government forces surrounded the neighborhood and began shelling it in early February. Homes were obliterated and civilians holed up in dire conditions, including little to no food and no electricity. Activists such as “Danny,”  whose real name we're not using for security reasons, relayed stories of the conditions, posted videos purporting to show the violence there, and called on the international community to help.

And while many of the opposition fighters may have left, fresh videos give a horrifying glimpse into what’s happened there – and what residents say is continuing to occur.

Those who still remain in Baba Amr want you to know that while the rebels have retreated, they are still suffering and things are getting even worse.

Residents are telling stories of grim details of reprisals now that the rebels have left. And they say they have the video to prove it.

New videos posted from Homs suggest a fresh wave of killings by the Syrian military after the fall of the neighborhood of Baba Amr.

Activists have provided CNN with footage purportedly showing the bodies of 17 civilians that were discovered February 29 in villages near Baba Amr following an all-out assault on the neighborhood that had held off a government assault for weeks.

Much of the video is too graphic to show on air, but analysis of the video shows at least 12 bodies.

In one section, bodies are piled up in the back of a truck bed covered in blankets. Snow falls on the bodies as people in the background wail, some shouting, "There is no God but God!" One man off camera says, "These are the victims of the massacre by the Shabiha (a government militia), entire families slaughtered by the forces of Assad" a reference to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Several of the victims appear to have been shot in the head, with some showing signs of deep cuts to the face and other body parts. At least one victim appears to have had his arms tied up using red strips of cloth.

Activist group Avaaz listed 17 names of the victims that it said it had confirmed, and claimed at least six of the men came from one family, named Sabouh.

In another video, the camera pans down a line of five bodies wrapped in shrouds, as someone off camera reads off their names.

Avaaz, citing an FSA source, said “hundreds of bodies” lie in the rubble of shelled houses in Baba Amr and in the streets. Opposition groups say Syrian forces executed 14 civilians after the forces moved into the neighborhood Thursday. Dima Moussa, spokeswoman for the Revolutionary Council of Homs, told CNN that government forces have begun a “raid-and-arrest” campaign in Baba Amr.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said an aid convoy seeking to deliver food and medical care to Baba Amr was turned back on Friday. The ICRC says the Syrian government had earlier given the convoy permission.

Opposition groups say Syrian officials are purposefully keeping aid workers out of Baba Amr to conceal atrocities.

Meanwhile, government forces, backed by tanks, have surrounded the Sunni-dominated Homs neighborhoods of Bab Tadmur and Jib al-Jandali, the Revolutionary Council of Homs said. Intense fighting was reported in those areas, and a video posted by an opposition activist claimed to show smoke rising from Bab Tadmur after a shelling attack.

Protests continue elsewhere in Syria, with an opposition group saying 16 people died Friday in Rastan when a shell fired by Syrian forces exploded in a crowd of demonstrators. Deaths also were reported in Idlib,Hama,Aleppo, Deir Ezzor, Dourna, Daraa and Lattakia, according to the LCC.

Photos: Friday protests in Binnish, an opposition enclave in northwest Syria 

How brutal crackdown began

The conflict erupted in March 2011, when al-Assad's Alawite minority-dominated government launched a crackdown against a predominantly Sunni anti-government protest movement that eventually devolved into an uprising with an armed resistance. Al-Assad is an Alawite, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

The spark, CNN’s Joe Sterling writes, began in the southern Syria city of Daraa with the arrests of at least 15 children for painting anti-government graffiti on the walls of a school. The community's outrage over the children's arrests and the government's humiliating and violent reactions to their worries emboldened and helped spread the Syrian opposition.

The Free Syrian Army, which consists of many disparate militia groups operating under the FSA banner, has grown over the months and is made up primarily of former regime soldiers who refused to accept orders to fire on innocent protesters.

The United Nations estimates more than 7,500 people have died during the conflict, while an opposition activist group puts the toll at more than 9,000 people. The Syrian government says more than 2,000 security personnel have been killed in the violence.

Al-Assad has denied targeting civilians, saying his forces are after armed gangs and foreign fighters bent on destabilizing Syria. But evidence to the contrary has been documented by citizen journalists and opposition members, who post their work on social media websites and YouTube.

What other nations are doing

United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron on Friday who said that the Syrian government will face a “day of reckoning” for its deadly crackdown on opposition groups follows a flurry of developments in Syria in the past 48 hours, including rebels’ retreat from their former stronghold in Homs.

His statements come as international pressure against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been building. On Thursday, the U.N. Human Rights Council passed a resolution that condemned Syria's "widespread and systematic violations of human rights," and called on the regime to permit aid groups in to distribute relief.

The U.N. Human Rights Council's condemnation of the crackdown punctuates a growing international consensus against the al-Assad regime and its policies.

But despite enormous international pressure from the U.N., the United States, the European Union and member nations of the Arab League to bring about an end to the violence, al-Assad has continued to push forward with the crackdown.

On Friday, the European Union formally recognized the opposition Syrian National Council as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. French President Nicolas Sarkozy also announced Friday that France would close its embassy in Damascus.

Earlier this year, Russia(a Soviet-era ally and arms dealer to Syria) and China vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the Syrian government. But last week, representatives of other international powers, including the United States, met in Tunisia for a Friends of Syria meeting to begin working on ways to stop the violence, devise a political solution and deliver aid.

The Friends of Syria meeting stressed the importance of the political opposition movement, including the Syrian National Council, but the group didn't refer to armed conflict as a solution, even though a Saudi Arabian diplomat said arming rebels would be a very good idea.

The Syrian National Council announced Thursday it had established a "military bureau" to coordinate with the Free Syrian Army.

The United States has not committed to arming the opposition. But it has clamped down on Syria with sanctions. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said that diplomatic efforts were under way to peel away support from al-Assad, and that al-Assad’s “illegitimate regime ... is going to fall."

Some critics of the Obama administration’s stance on Syria say it isn’t doing enough. Blake Hounshell, managing editor of Foreign Policy, writes that the United States has not done all it can to hasten al-Assad's exit.

soundoff (361 Responses)
  1. Bravin

    Let China and Russia feed, medicate, educate, and arm the opposing factions in Syria. Then we can go in and rebuild on their dime for a change. I look at Egypt, Libya, Sudan.....and what do we find? It's business as usual. Maybe the old saying "better the devil you know" is accurate. The region isn't safer, people don't seem happier, no matter how many times they praise their deity, because no one's listening.

    March 5, 2012 at 3:34 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  2. LMD

    For all of those Politicians calling for war of any kind-the first persons I want to see on the front lines are you,your sons,your grandsons,etc. No excuses that your sons are being Patriotic by getting you elected,or that you are too old. Be my guest to step right up,and get your cronies and their Super Pacs to pay for it! Stop asking our kids,husbands ,daughters etc to fight your wars

    March 5, 2012 at 3:35 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • DoubleW

      Absolutely! With a truly universal draft, you would suddenly see "wars of choice" becoming much less popular.

      March 5, 2012 at 3:44 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Elio

    For God sake is this a double standard or what? I mean here in the US, people were kicked out and beaten of Wall Street peaceful sit in and demonstration yet no one said a word. While in Syria, the government is battling terrorist and Al Qaeda groups and the whole world is outrageous... We talk of Syrian regime shelling and killing innocent people. Of course, we all are against that! But what do you do if terrorists are hiding among civilians and have snipers on top of buildings?? You try your best to safe lives but in the end you can’t surrender to terrorists.

    If bunch of demonstrators armed themselves here and turned violent and started bombing government buildings and killing Army and police personnel in the name of reforms, will the US government sit with their hands crossed?

    Tell me what kind of human rights exist in Saudi Arabia the number 1 US ally in the Middle East. What kind of reform exists there where women are not even allowed to drive…where criminals still get executed by the sword? Where Christian people are called sinners and not one single church is even allowed to be built? Where foreign women walking down the street without being covered properly will get beaten by religious police? What happened in Bahrain where peaceful demonstrators were killed in the streets and the Gulf army stepped in to quell them and not one foreign media covered that?

    I want to believe that the demonstrations in Syria are in the name of better democracy and the need of reforms but it’s hard. It did start that way but other groups took advantage of the situation and each is executing his own agenda. Reforms take time; International pressure never gave the government a chance. What I see now is different opposition groups vowing to attack and bring down the government. And they even say out loud that we are being supported, armed and financed by such and such country.

    Just my 2 cents.

    If bunch of demonstrators armed themselves here and turned violent and started bombing government buildings and killing Army and police personnel in the name of reforms, will the US government sit with their hands crossed?

    I hate double standards? Tell me what kind of human rights exist in Saudi Arabia the number 1 US ally in the Middle East. What kind of reform exists there where women are not even allowed to drive…where criminals still get executed by the sword? Where Christian people are called sinners and not one single church is even allowed to be built? Where even foreign women walking down the street without being covered properly will get beaten by religious police? And have we forgotten that most Sep 2011 attackers are Saudi nationals? What happened in Bahrain where peaceful demonstrators were killed in the streets and the Gulf army stepped in to quell them and not one foreign media covered that?

    I want to believe that the demonstrations in Syria are in the name of better democracy and the need of reforms but it’s hard. It did start that way but other groups took advantage of the situation and each is executing his own agenda. Reforms take time; International pressure never gave the government a chance. What I see now is different opposition groups vowing to attack and bring down the government. And they even say out loud that we are being supported, armed and financed by such and such country.

    Just my 2 cents.

    March 5, 2012 at 3:37 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Jokesterer

    What's your favorite nation-building fiasco?

    March 5, 2012 at 3:42 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Colleen

    Please, let's stay the hell out of there! Have we learned nothing from our past endeavors? Why would we endanger more American lives? Be still, John MCain!

    March 5, 2012 at 3:48 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  6. j

    I hear the news and I watch the videos.. I ask myself why haven't other Middle East countries begin to arm the rebels. This is not a problem for the west to solve. This is an Arab League problem. They need to begin arming the rebels with more powerful weapons. The west should supply the weapons. Thats it. It'll be the responsibility of the Arab League to take them where needed. To the leaders of the league: Grow a set and remember that your god is watching also

    March 5, 2012 at 3:52 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Chris

    Yeah! Another fine example of the Religion of Peace in action.

    March 5, 2012 at 4:05 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Liqmaticus

    "Much of the video is too graphic to show on air, but analysis of the video shows at least 12 bodies."

    How silly and why I usually go to European news reports to get a better and more realistic story. This is news, not kids programming.

    March 5, 2012 at 4:05 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Barry G.

      When does Assad’s trial begin, for the atrocities he has committed?

      March 5, 2012 at 4:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • jon

      God, if there is one, must be looking down upon the Earth and saying "What the heck have I done here?" Great.

      March 5, 2012 at 5:20 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Pliny

    After decades of listening to arab-muslims blame EVERYONE else for their failed societies, failed nations, failed militaries and (especially) their failed religion....I can only say to the syrians....YOU HAVE NOBODY TO BLAME BUT YOURSELVES.

    March 5, 2012 at 4:13 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Pliny

    Let them butcher one another to the last man/woman/child.

    Would they, or any arab-muslim, lift a finger to help an "infidel"?

    March 5, 2012 at 4:16 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Hoosa

      Your inflammatory/racist comments reflect your ignorance...Muslims make up over quarter of world population and such hate comments paints all Muslims as extremists. The people being butchared by this criminal regime are ordinary citizens mostly women, kids, teens and elder who simply want better future and one tenth of the freedom that you and your family enjoy. Talk is cheap low life!!

      March 5, 2012 at 5:32 pm | Report abuse |
  11. hi hi!!!

    the whole middleast should be carpet bombed. evacuate israel, tell them the tradeoff for ridding themselves of vermin is giving up their monuments and move them all to new york and toronto.....

    jordan can stay they are nice.... in roder iran syria lebanon can all be blown to smithereens!!

    March 5, 2012 at 4:19 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Hoosa

      and i say your home should be bombed too Mr intellegint

      March 5, 2012 at 5:35 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Barry G.

    When dies Assad’s trial begin, for the atrocities he has committed?

    March 5, 2012 at 4:21 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • keith

      where the hell did you go to school. ARE NOT

      March 5, 2012 at 4:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • OC

      I guess the same school as you...

      March 5, 2012 at 5:30 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Motsomi Masilo

    Stop using the opposition forces in Syria to advance own agendas of imperialism and cementing western hegemony in Damascus. The Syrian oil resources belong to its citizens and no one else.

    March 5, 2012 at 4:23 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Pliny

      Take the Che Guevera posters off your bedroom wall, and drop the idioticly dated rhetoric.

      March 5, 2012 at 4:29 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Kerry

    The Devil has the people by the throat in Syria. Immigration is advised. It's no way to live.

    March 5, 2012 at 4:25 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Barry G.

    When Assad has his trial at the Hague, what is he looking at –war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide?

    Assad, I suggest you get a good lawyer.

    March 5, 2012 at 4:27 pm | Report abuse | Reply
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