For over a year autocratic regimes across the Arab world have been under intense pressure. As revolutions brought down governments in Tunisia, Egypt and then, more violently, Libya, it looked for a while as through the political map of the entire region would be redrawn.
But the response of one leader to these extraordinary developments has been so brutal and unremitting that it has brought his country to the edge of disaster. That country is Syria – and that leader is President Bashar al-Assad.
On February 28, the United Nations announced that more than 7,500 civilians had been killed by Syrian security forces since the revolt began there 12 months ago. Yet at time of writing the Syrian army’s aggressive bombardment of areas of Homs and other anti-regime strongholds around the country shows no sign of slackening.
An uprising that its initiators hoped would quickly emulate the successes of the ‘Arab Spring’ now seems set to drag bloodily on into another year. An even more dreadful humanitarian crisis – if not all out civil war – may be the end result.
Al-Assad, however, seems impervious to widespread overseas condemnation. Despite the best efforts of the Arab League and some at the UN, the Syrian leader and his supporters in the Alawite wing of the ruling Ba’ath Party cling to power, bolstered by a degree of sectarian domestic support and internationally by Russia and China, which vetoed an attempt by the US, France, the UK and others in early February to issue a Security Council resolution condemning the violence.
So how did Syria get to this point? How did peaceful, if noisy, protests against the continuation of a one-party state, evolve into a fight to the death between a people and a regime that shows no mercy and brooks no opposition?
Syria: The People Awake tells the story of the first year of the uprising – from its origins in the city of Deraa in February 2011, where 15 children were arrested and some tortured for daubing sardonic anti-government slogans on a wall, through the formation of the opposition Syrian National Army and the unsuccessful efforts of the international community to find a solution, to the current plight of the residents of Baba Amr, a neighbourhood of Homs, cowering under the shells of the regime’s tanks and guns and paying an ever increasing price in dead and wounded.