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. Mo

    We should drop chickenhawks from the sky over the Syrian capitol. Where is Rush Limbaugh when we need him most?

    March 5, 2012 at 4:39 pm | Report abuse |
  2. joe

    Towel heads:

    Take note. This is what life is like for you when your so called hated American doesn't come to administer peace in your land.

    When we come to restore order, you call us vile names and attack us. But when we're not there holding the peace, look at what you do to yourselves.

    March 5, 2012 at 4:39 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Ceri

    Send in a few carefully aimed tomahawks. Give them something to think about.

    March 5, 2012 at 4:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • jon

      Tomahawks do sound real good about now. Send one up Assad's As....

      March 5, 2012 at 5:22 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Kevin E

    Jesus Christ is God. Praise the Lord!!!!!!

    March 5, 2012 at 5:03 pm | Report abuse |
  5. midas

    We should have helped Syria not Iraq we would at least have had some support from within.

    March 5, 2012 at 5:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • FedUpWithBigGovernment

      We should not help any of them... they DON'T APPRECIATE ANYTHING WE DO FOR THEM.. and turn around and have their soldiers KILL our soldiers (for something stupid like saying Mohammeds name or burning the great book of fiction the KORAN)... we accidentally burn a book.. and those monsters go on a KILLING rampage... and the media takes the sides of the barbarian killers.. and somehow try to justify it.... please... Let them all butcher each other... that way we don't have to deal with them any longer... We had to solve our internal conflicts ourselves... nothing like shedding some blood to appreciate what you have. The only thing the Muslims understand is brutality...

      March 5, 2012 at 5:42 pm | Report abuse |
  6. FedUpWithBigGovernment

    And the drum beat goes on from the mainstream media to aid the Syrians... The USA needs to keep our nose (and our money) out of this conflict. Let the Syrians deal with it on their own.. or let the other Arab countries pony up the resources to help them. I am tired of our great service men and women being put in harms way to help people that are not at all appreciative... lets remember.. IRAQ, AFGHANISTAN (afghan soldiers KILLING our soldiers attempting to help them), Lybia, Egypt... THEY only want to use us for their short term benefit.. then they will tell the USA how much they HATE US. I'm tired of fighting everyone elses tribal skirmishes!

    March 5, 2012 at 5:33 pm | Report abuse |
  7. charley

    Why is it always the US that has to get involved. Everyone is just sitting around.....waiting for us to spend the money and lives, etc. This blood is on Russia and China. I hope people don't forget that. It's time for the people in that area to stand up and protect the common Syrian people. It is because Americans can not stand to see things llike this....that is why we are the most giving nation on earth – always have been and always will. It is time for the US to let someone else resolve this issue – it hurts and is painful to watch....

    March 5, 2012 at 5:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • FedUpWithBigGovernment

      Unfortunately.. we cannot AFFORD to do this type of activity any longer. Let the ARAB nations PONY up either OIL or CASH to cover ALL OF THE EXPENSES if they want any assistance.. otherwise TOO BAD... we should not SPEND ONE DIME until our 15 TRILLION national debt is paid down. THE REST OF THE WORLD needs to start to PONY UP CASH for any future American assistance.

      March 5, 2012 at 5:37 pm | Report abuse |
  8. ma & pa

    ...of ideologies that demand and practice intolerance, violent hatred and punishment, includind execution, for what we think of here as our everyday rights in this free country. The face of war is seen more clearly now through video links and it is heartbreaking. So it has always been. That face must be kept out of America. We have always said that the basic plan to overrun U.S. is Weaken (by any means including overseas wars that kill and maim many of the bravest of our children), Impoverish, Villify (by distorting the good we try to do to protect the 'innocent') and Overrun U.S. The actions of our best ideals are being used against us by people who hate our way of life, and view our kindness as weakness. If what we say is not on the mark let the Arab leaders speak stop to Syria. Unless they all have something to gain by cauring our loss of more "human chess pieces" in a game designed to ruin this "infidel" free nation.

    March 5, 2012 at 5:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • David Miller

      Those so called activists are terrorists at best, just my opinion.

      March 6, 2012 at 8:45 am | Report abuse |
  9. stephendouglas

    There will never, never be peace among the people of the middle east as long as the people want freedom while the tyrannical leaders use their bogus cult as the means to control the masses.

    Their cult is a cult of intolerance, oppression, and terror. The only way they know how to act is to kill one another. If the rebels of Syria manage to overthrow the government, another tyrant will take his place and they will return to their sad existence.

    Which is why so many want to come to American, or Britain, or Australia, Germany, etc. The irony is, once they leave that cat's litter box of the world and arrive at a Western country, they try to have the laws and practices of those nations altered to meet their cultist beliefs instead of integrating with their new homeland.

    What a joke. We need to just fence it all in, give all of them guns, and let them duke it out until the last man is standing.

    March 5, 2012 at 6:03 pm | Report abuse |
  10. FedUpWithBigGovernment

    Has anyone ever asked themselves.. why are autocracies the predominant form of government in this area of the world? Over thousands of years.. this is the predominant form of governance that has won out. The reason is simple... the people are intolerant hot-heads and will kill someone for any reason. Saddam Hussein once said something like "they are dogs and need an iron fist to govern these people".. and you know what HE HAD A POINT. Think of the relative PEACE that they enjoyed when the autocracies were humming along... and look at it now.. which would you rather?

    March 5, 2012 at 6:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • Csam18

      Peace maybe, happiness.. doubtful. People don't rise up when things are fine and dandy. Obviously these people want more than what they've been given if they're willing to put their lives on the line. It's the ones trying to stay in power that are cowards.

      March 5, 2012 at 6:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • cyg

      I'll take my freedom of any kind over your tyranical peace – any day. If that means war – so be it. Now you know why – wish we could have it here sometimes to clean you rednecks out.

      March 5, 2012 at 6:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • stephendouglas

      fedupwithbiggovernment....There was peace when autocracies were in power because they terrorized the people into submission and continue to do so with their so called religion.

      Why else would you behead someone in a public square for breaking the law. It is terror pure and simple. And there were / are many folks making a living off the terrorized society, just like big business interests in our own country are using the politicians to bilk our people out of our tax dollars while claiming to promote democracy around the world.

      What a load of crap.

      Once the people begin to see the light, they start to rise up. But, there is a lot at stake financially speaking, so, there is a lot of money going into quelling the uprising with whatever it takes.

      The difference between an uprising in the middle east versus an uprising in the U.S. is that we have not taken to the streets with weapons in hand. It may happen if the crooks in D.C. don't get their acts together.

      March 5, 2012 at 8:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kiljoy616

      Intolerance is build into Islam. Unless we have a way to remove that intolerance from the religion good luck changing much. Look at Egypt and how fast they fell right into theocracy. What democracy is going to come to these people. As soon as they have some real freedom they will vote it away again. No thanks let them kill each other I rather non of my friends have to deal any more with policing the Muslim world of its retardation.

      March 6, 2012 at 2:21 am | Report abuse |
    • FedUpWithBigGovernment

      My point was... maybe because these people are such barbarians.. they need an IRON FIST to keep them under control and semi-civilized....

      March 6, 2012 at 3:07 am | Report abuse |
    • rick

      Sort of like the things your ancestors dealt with in Europe. Same solution...should have fenced in Europe and let them kill each other....Then you would be where today?

      March 6, 2012 at 4:32 pm | Report abuse |
  11. c. smythe

    taliban or assad . . . tough choice the west is not prepared to make . . .

    March 5, 2012 at 7:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kiljoy616

      So well said. That what people on both sides don't get. There is no good side. Its bad and bad killing off the population one way or another.

      March 6, 2012 at 2:22 am | Report abuse |
  12. Bob

    Yet again we see the total uselessness of the United Nations organization. When are our governments going to wake up and stop funding this corrupt and ineffective cabal? The only way that the muslim peoples will rid themselves of these blood thirsty dictators and religious zealots is by denouncing Islam and joining the modern world.

    March 5, 2012 at 7:43 pm | Report abuse |
  13. forreal89

    Sad but we need to stay out and not take in any refugees. These people hate us and we need to stay out. All these people will do is complain and not have any allegiance to the U.S. Stay away and stay out. Anyone from that country is a terrorist with backward ideas.

    March 5, 2012 at 7:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • rick

      Yeh..sort of like the Christians when the slaughtered everyone on the way to the Holyland..

      March 6, 2012 at 4:33 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Ferdinand

    Are we foolish enough to meddle in the internal affairs of Syria? Let China send in a few million troops. They have all the resources these days.

    March 5, 2012 at 7:57 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Karina

    good idea....the Republicans call for intervention to protect the Syrian people by US Forces, and in the next breath they will demand we pay for it by cutting healthcare to the elderly or reduce unemployment benefits to unemployed Americans. This is what you guys will get if they have their way. Obama 2012!

    March 5, 2012 at 8:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rich in TX

      Umm, most Republicans I know are against intervention, at least the average Republican on the street. I've seen a number of Democrats arguing FOR intervention.

      Feelings on the Syrian issue don't follow party lines – you need to drop your partisan ideas when they're off-base.

      March 5, 2012 at 9:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • FedUpWithBigGovernment

      I agree with Rich.. I'm conservative...and i ADAMANTLY oppose any type of intervention. I am tired of the US not minding their own business... I am tired of us spending countless dollars on foreign people/wars etc... We need to take care of our own and until then... let China or someone else police the world.. and lets see how that works out for them...

      March 6, 2012 at 3:05 am | Report abuse |
    • jrh

      And for the record isn't it in the Obama plan to reduce retirement benefits to active and retired military? Thats not even meant to be a dig on the Adminstration, just a fact check. Facts over bias in discussion please. On that note, however, reduction in military benefits or social security should be a way more unpalatable concept. Why? Because its a broken promise. When the government takes our FICA withholdings, and when they offer enlistment contracts to American servicemembers, it is under the premise of certain benefits. To cut them after the contributors have held up their end of the bargain is defaulting on what's owed.

      March 6, 2012 at 10:25 am | Report abuse |
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