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Syria’s uprising began with mostly peaceful protests, but a brutal government crackdown with tanks, machine guns and snipers led many in the opposition to take up arms. Now, the conflict has morphed into an armed insurgency.
The violence has grown increasingly chaotic in recent months, and it is difficult to assign blame for much of the bloodshed as the country spirals toward civil war. The government restricts journalists from moving freely, making it nearly impossible to independently verify accounts from either side.
Assad, 46, who inherited power from his father in 2000, is still firmly in control after more than a year of warfare that has torn at the country’s fabric and threatened to undermine stability in the Middle East.
A cease-fire plan brokered by international envoy Kofi Annan is violated by both sides every day, but Western leaders continue to pin their hopes on diplomatic pressure, with the U.S. and others unwilling to get deeply involved in another Arab nation in turmoil — particularly one as unpredictable as Syria.
The rebel Free Syrian Army is determined to bring down the regime by force of arms, targeting military checkpoints and other government sites. A U.N. observer team with nearly 300 members has done little to quell the bloodshed.
Al-Qaida-style suicide bombings have become increasingly common in Syria, and Western officials say there is little doubt that Islamist extremists, some associated with the terror network, have made inroads in Syria as instability has spread.
Fears also have risen that the violence could spread and provoke a regional conflagration. Syria’s regional ties make its conflict among the most explosive of the Arab Spring. The regime has alliances with powerful forces including Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Shiite powerhouse Iran.
Already, clashes have broken out between pro- and anti-Syrian groups in northern Lebanon, with at least eight people killed late Friday and early Saturday, Lebanese security officials said.
In Sunday’s speech, Assad said his opponents have ignored his moves toward reform, including a referendum on a new constitution and recent parliamentary elections. He suggested this meant that the call for democracy was not the driving force of the revolt.
"We will not be lenient. We will be forgiving only for those who renounce terrorism," he said.
Assad has acknowledged there are genuine calls for reform, although the opposition says he has offered only cosmetic changes that do little to change a culture where any whisper of dissent could lead to arrest and torture.
The president said the doors of Damascus were open for dialogue with the opposition — a key component of Annan’s peace plan — as long as the parties have no foreign agendas or involvement with terrorism.
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