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. GiuseppeB

    The Syrian rebels are the al-Qaeda. CNN is now censoring comments.

    March 3, 2012 at 2:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • BinaryTruth

      Syrian government agents SHOULD be censored.

      March 5, 2012 at 5:23 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Brad

    Im going to go out on a limb here, but if I had a guess at why the US or the rest of the world is waiting to help syria might have a lot to do with Iran. Iran is in the middle of elections, and already voter fraud is being speculated. In the next few weeks there will be uprising in Iran, which will be when the rest of the world jumps into syria. Once the syrian leader is arrested the rest of the world will sit back and see what becomes of Iran. By then most of the sanctions on Iran will finally start to take place, and the people will begin to riot in the streets like they did in syria. See if you jump into syria too early iran helps them making it a blood bath or if you attack iran before their elections and their people uprising, then it makes dealing with them a heck of a lot harder.

    March 3, 2012 at 3:33 pm | Report abuse |
  3. James

    It's over folks. Support the Assad government and stop meddling in other country's affairs. We are essentially trying to influence who should rule Syria. How would we like for other countries to meddle in our affairs? Suck it up!! We lost and Assad won. Move on and and invite the Assad government to join the world community. Stop the economic sanctions that is also hurting our own country. Gas prices are already $4 where I live. Lifting sanctions helps all Syrians. That is the only way you can help all of Syria. If Syrians want a change in government, they can enter into a dialogue with their government. Fermenting trouble and violence to overthrow a foreign government is wrong. Assad is not going anywhere anytime soon whether we like it or not.

    March 3, 2012 at 4:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • smokeythebandit

      Wake up! Why do you think there is a blood bath going on in Syria. There's no room for dialogue with al-Assad; people are dying because they attempted to initiate dialogue! The violence is happening without us intervening, whatsoever. Get out from under your rock and do some research.

      March 3, 2012 at 6:51 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Thomas Henley

    Well with Cameron decreeing the Syrian Regime will 'face a day of reckonig" all I can say is its a good thing few Syrians are Jewish or we would be hearing for the next twenty years how the British Prime Minister wants to wipe Syria off the map.

    March 3, 2012 at 4:22 pm | Report abuse |
  5. steve

    aaah-again the world meddles in affairs it has no place meddling in.News flash: if there is nothing to gain by the world monetarily from this, you can expect to see no intervention.In fact,quite the opposite-China and Russia stand to lose big,which means a no-go for the Syrian people.

    March 3, 2012 at 4:41 pm | Report abuse |
  6. steve

    again the world meddles in affairs it has no place meddling in.News flash: if there is nothing to gain by the world monetarily from this, you can expect to see no intervention.In fact,quite the opposite-China and Russia stand to lose big,which means a big no-go for the Syrian people.

    March 3, 2012 at 4:43 pm | Report abuse |
  7. dafsadfs

    Hey Blake Hounshell, grab a weapon and go over and fight if you want to help them so bad you chicken hawk coward

    March 3, 2012 at 5:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • smokeythebandit

      Sounds like an effective strategy, dafsadfs

      March 3, 2012 at 6:52 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Jim McDonald

    It feels as if discontented Syrian people got their hopes raised by the Arab Spring, especially by the NATO facilitated overthrow of Gadaffi in Libya. The current suffering in Syria is regrettable but I don;t see how the civil war there is any of our (USA) business, any more than the civil war in Libya was any of our business. I don't know whose business it is other than Syria's. The USA at this point in time is oversubscribed and , if anything, needs to stop intervening militarily in the world not finding new places to fight.

    March 3, 2012 at 6:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • Lung MD

      man, where were you when Bush invaded Afghanistan and Iraq??? you are genius , no one thought of this before...now take your prozac and go to bed.

      March 4, 2012 at 12:26 am | Report abuse |
    • Kyle Epps

      It's a genocide. We as humans should try our best to stop this, not sit around and read about how they are killing men, women and children without hesitation. It concerns me that you have not apathy for this countrys civilians and would rather stay sheltered and forget the whole predicament.

      March 4, 2012 at 2:22 am | Report abuse |
  9. bribarian

    another zionist war to stay out of

    March 3, 2012 at 6:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jules

      It is a war to stay out of but I don't get the zionist part. jew hate Muslims, Muslims hate Jews, but that is obvious to a casual observer. But the other part is that Muslims really do seem to hate everybody. The west should do their level best to insulate themselves from these people.

      March 4, 2012 at 1:00 am | Report abuse |
  10. Please, no more

    More cruise misles from Obama with love.

    March 3, 2012 at 6:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Lung MD

      Obama is too weak and indecisive to do such thing

      March 4, 2012 at 12:27 am | Report abuse |
    • Alexander

      America spent about $2 billion in Libya, all from US tax payers. More fighters came to Iraq to fight Americans than any other Arab country other than Saudi Arabia. Now the great America wants to help these groups or organizations that we dont know much about. Lets count tell 100 and breath than put some brain before we go ahead with anything in future like in Syria.

      March 4, 2012 at 12:28 am | Report abuse |
    • Jules

      Lung, I don't think it is indecisive. He gave the team a green light to get Osama. I just think its a case of he realizes that this entire region is a waste. Its just not worth the effort. Maybe a wild animal trainer could have some luck, but I even doubt that

      March 4, 2012 at 1:03 am | Report abuse |
  11. the truth

    the USA has alot to gain from Syria. if we are the leader of taking it on we would take away Russia and China's top buyer of weapons and that would hurt there pockets. If you have not noticed we are in a race with china on 2 fields space and weapon development and we both would like nothing more than hurt each others wallets to stale any progress. before you say i support anything or anyone i would like to say im speaking the truth.

    March 3, 2012 at 9:49 pm | Report abuse |
  12. joe702

    The syrian people are no friends of the US. It is amazing how quickly people forget that most of the enemy combatants that where killing US troops in Iraq where coming from syria! How many times have they been seen in the recent past burning American flags and chanting "death to America". Let syria BURN!

    March 3, 2012 at 10:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • FedUpWithBigGovernment

      EXACTLY... let the barbarians slaughter each other. The problem will take care of itself. I do not want to spend ONE DIME with any type of assistance here..... not ONE ******* DIME. And some of our 'statesmen' are trying to get us into yet another war... (McCain)... ENOUGH... Im a conservative.. and ENOUGH IS ENOUGH.. NO MORE WARS.... we need to put our nose to the grind stone and take care of our own... and pay down our 15 TRILLION dollar debt. While we are on all of these follies.. CHINA is destroying us by out manufacturing us... we get weaker.. they get stronger... WE ARE BEING PLAYED FOR FOOLS people.

      March 5, 2012 at 6:00 pm | Report abuse |
  13. br

    The Iran block, Cia, Hollywood commies, and mossad all thought Arab spring was a good deal as long as it was independent dictators. Now it is Iran backyard so the alliance is over. Now our gas is $5/gall paying for Russia's rearming. This is because our energy policy is designed to fight for Israel even though it has 300 nukes to Iran's 1 almost nuke. Personally I hope the price continues until Nov and Russia builds the Bering Strait Oilpipeline/bridge to Alaska ending oil ships and green nazis power graps.

    March 3, 2012 at 11:31 pm | Report abuse |
  14. giga8892156

    I get on here almost everyday to read the same thing. Homs and other cities besieged by the Syrian government, and not just killing the "rebels" but innocents as well. What I find sad is the fact that no one, will do anything about it. Personally, I think the United Nations or NATO or someone or some group needs to intervene. end of story.

    March 4, 2012 at 12:01 am | Report abuse |
  15. Jacobi

    This is Shia Sunni confflict. Not a fight for democracy or Arab Spring. This is a 1400 year old conflict. Does anybody knows who is right ? Shia or Sunni ? Let phony Saudi petro-dollar rent Paki army for stage fight .

    March 4, 2012 at 12:10 am | Report abuse |
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