Interactive Map: The Battle for Syria
Follow @jbrezlowSeptember 18, 2012, 9:46 pm ET
The mass protests that began in the rural farming town of Dara’a in March 2011 have since spiraled into a full-blown insurgency. Rebels have won control over much of the nation’s countryside, and taken key neighborhoods in several important cities, including the biggest, Aleppo, and the capital, Damascus.
The challenge ahead for the rebels is keeping their gains from becoming short lived. Victory can be tenuous in Syria, where forces on one side of the fight may seize a street corner in the morning, only to retreat from it by the afternoon.
The fighting has exacerbated sectarian rifts between Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority, and the Alawites, a minority group that makes up a disproportionate share of the government. Massacres have been reported in several cities and villages across the country, and a quarter of a million Syrians have fled as refugees. In all, 26,000 have been killed since the start of the uprising, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Click on a blue city on the map below to learn more about how the uprising is playing out there. Red dots represent areas where massacres are reported to have taken place.*
Some of the war’s fiercest fighting reached Aleppo in late July, when rebels began to penetrate Syria’s economic capital. A rebel force of approximately 6,000 fighters is now fighting to wrest control of the city from a government contingent believed to be at least twice as large.
Fighting has centered in three major neighborhoods of the city: Bustan al Qasr, Hamadanieh, and Salaheddiin. Rebels made initial inroads throughout Aleppo, but several of those early gains have been either stalled or reversed, resulting in a stalemate.
“Through the battle of Aleppo, we can see the future of the Syrian revolution,” Guardian reporter and FRONTLINE correspondent Ghaith Abdul-Ahad said of the fighting there. “Can the government take back the city from the rebels or can the rebels actually push the government to the edge and liberate the city? This is the most important battle for Syria.”
After persistent anti-government demonstrations, the government sent tanks into this coastal city last spring, calling Banias a “center of Salafist terrorism.” Leaders in Banias said the charge was an attempt to spread fear among the city’s minority Alawites. Though Banias is mainly Sunni, it is surrounded by Alawite villages.
In an April 2011 protest — unusual because it was mainly comprised of women and children — thousands of protesters called for the government to release opponents of the regime who had been picked up by security forces. Such protests were generally expected to receive more gentle treatment, but three women were killed in another all-female demonstration the following month.
The town’s government-run hospital has been accused by Amnesty International of carrying out human rights abuses against injured protesters seeking treatment. As a result, some of the injured are turning to secret makeshift hospitals run by activists instead.
Major fighting did not reach the Syrian capital until this past summer, when a wave of rebel attacks shook the very foundation of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
In July, rebels staged one of the boldest assaults since the start of the uprising, striking a national security building and killing three members of the president’s inner circle: Defense Minister Dawood Rajiha; Assad’s brother-in-law and Deputy Defense Minister, Assef Shawkat; and Assistant Vice President Hasan Turkmani.
The regime has sought to combat rebel gains in Damascus with what activists described as a “hit-and-run” strategy of quick and intense raids in which forces briefly invade a neighborhood, but do not hold it. “Terror is the basic approach,” explained Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Center for the Middle East in The New York Times.
Maintaining control of Damascus is crucial to the regime’s maintaining power. It has heavily deployed security forces — activists estimate the number of secret police on the streets has doubled since the uprising began — and organized massive rallies in support of President Assad. In June 2011, state television claimed that 2 million people marched in Damascus in support of the government.
The Syrian rebellion began in this small farming town 60 miles south of Damascus. Residents of Dara’a took to the streets in March 2011 after at least 15 children were tortured by security forces for scribbling anti-government graffiti on the walls of a school. The ensuing military crackdown sparked protests that spread to other rural areas, eventually reaching cities.
In May 2011, activists reportedly discovered a mass grave near Dara’a believed to hold the bodies of dozens of anti-government protesters, including women and children. The government denied the reports of a mass grave, but said the deaths were being investigated.
Violence returned to Dara’a in June, when shelling and clashes between rebels and government forces left at least 17 people dead.
Resentment runs deep in Syria’s fourth-largest city, which has seen some of the country’s biggest protests, and some of the worst violence.
Hama’s roots as an opposition stronghold date back to the early 1980s, when Islamist groups based in the city conducted a bombing campaign against the regime. In 1982, with the country on the brink of civil war, President Hafez al-Assad ordered a massacre that killed at least 10,000 people and left parts of the country in shambles. New reports of massacres in the province of Hama began to trickle out beginning in June, first in the village of Al Qubair, followed by a mass killing in Tremseh.
Syria’s third-largest city is the capital of the uprising, and has borne the brunt of the regime’s violent crackdown.
In February, the regime began a months-long assault on the city that killed more than 100 civilians in the opening hours, according to activists. The siege came to a pause in April, following a cease-fire brokered by the United Nations.
The fighting has since resumed, however, causing a “grave” humanitarian situation that “continues to deteriorate,” according to the World Health Organization. As many as one in four, or 550,000 of the city’s residents, are in need of aid, according to the WHO, yet as of September, less than a handful of doctors remained in the province.
Analysts warn that Homs could potentially become a hub for sectarian violence if the regime falls. Since the 1970s, the city has been rife with tensions between its majority Sunni population and minority Alawites, who make up a disproportionate percentage of the government. In July 2011, the apparent abduction and murder of three Alawites led to a military assault on the city.
A city with a history of rebellion against the Assad regime, Jisr al-Sughour has been the scene of heavy fighting, but accounts about the battle there have often been disputed.
In June 2011, government forces claimed to have uncovered a mass grave filled with the bodies of security forces killed by armed groups in the city. According to the government, 120 security personnel overall were killed in clashes to suppress an armed rebellion in the town.
Activists suggested the bodies discovered in the grave could be those of army defectors or recruits who refused to fire on protesters. Because media access remains a challenge in the country, reports have been hard to confirm. The BBC has laid out the various claims here.
Home to many of Syria’s gas and oil fields, the region of Deir al-Zour is a mostly Sunni tribal area characterized by its extended clan network. Situated near the border with Iraq, Deir al-Zour has also served as a main supply route for rebel arms and ammunition.
Rebels claim to control 90 percent of the province; however, as their gains have grown, so too has the presence of Al Qaeda within their ranks. The fighters bring a level of sophistication that many of the rebels lack, yet many in the Free Syrian Army now fear that their fight for independence is being hijacked. As one rebel fighter put it to The Guardian‘s Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, “They are stealing the revolution from us and they are working for the day that comes after that.”
Syria’s state-run news agency reported that at least 25 men were killed and dumped on the side of a road in this rebel-held area on June 22.
Online video showed more than a dozen corpses, some dressed in military uniforms, in this village near the city of Aleppo in northwest Syria, the Associated Press reported.
“These are shabiha of Bashar al-Assad’s regime,” the video’s narrator said, referring to the name of Syria’s pro-government militia.
The killings came amid several weeks of heavy shelling by government forces fighting to take back rebel-controlled areas around Aleppo.
Thirteen factory workers were forced off of a bus on May 31, made to chant pro-government slogans, and then executed. None of the men were reported to have been known activists. Anti-government activists blamed the attack on the loyalist shabiha militia, and posted gruesome video showing bodies that had been shot at close range in the head and stomach.
Midday prayers had just finished when the killing began in Houla on May 25. Residents of the region, which is largely Sunni Muslim, were preparing for an anti-government demonstration when the offensive began. It started with roughly two hours of shelling from nearby predominantly Alawite villages.
When the shelling ended, armed gunmen went door-to-door, killing families at close range. As one survivor recalled to the BBC, “I heard all my family members screaming and yelling … As I approached the door, I heard several gunshots. I heard the soldiers leaving. I looked outside the room and saw all of my family members shot.”
In all, 108 locals, including 49 children, were killed in the Houla massacre. The United Nations has blamed (pdf) Syrian troops and the loyalist shabiha militia for the slaughter. The government has denied responsibility, however, maintaining that the attack was the work of “terrorists.”
As many as 400 dead bodies were discovered in late August in the Damascus suburb of Daraya, casualties of what appeared to be the single deadliest massacre since the beginning of the uprising.
The killings were part of a broader campaign by the regime to reassert control and turn local populations against the rebels. Witnesses reported that government forces entered the town, demanded hospitality from its residents, and then killed their hosts. After the killings, state media reported that Daraya had been “cleansed of terrorist remnants.”
Another 200 civilians were killed in this village in Hama province in July. Activists said that the attack followed a similar pattern: hours of bombardment by tanks, helicopter, and artillery shelling, followed by close-range executions by shabiha militia members.
Reports of new massacres in Hama province began to trickle out beginning in June, when up to 100 civilians were slaughtered in the village of Al Qubair. Activists said that security forces stormed the village, followed by pro-government militia members known as the shabiha. They shot multiple civilians at close range, stabbed others, and burnt bodies, according to activists. Government officials denied a state role in the assault, blaming it instead on “terrorists.”
Military forces attacked the Mediterranean coastal city in April 2011 after anti-government protests first broke out in Syria. By that August, the Syrian government re-entered the city with Navy vessels, tanks and soldiers, killing dozens.
While a majority of its residents are Sunnis, the city is also the heartland of President Bashar al-Assad’s minority Alawite sect. It was from Latakia that Assad directed the response to the July assassination of three of his top lieutenants in Damascus. Many analysts believe that if and when an endgame arrives for the current regime, it will center around Latakia.
*Because Syria has largely barred western journalists from the country, it is impossible to confirm some reports and death toll estimates.
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