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Why are U.S., Russia squabbling over Syria at the United Nations?

January 31, 2012 | 12:33 pm

Syria

The United States and a coalition of Arab countries are likely to face off with Russia at the United Nations over a proposed resolution that could call on Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down, Patrick J. McDonnell reports for The Times. The result could help reshape the future of Syria after nearly a year of bloodshed.

What has been happening in Syria?

Syrians tired of more than 40 years of autocratic rule by the Assad family joined the wave of democratic protests dubbed the “Arab Spring” last year. Many of the protesters are Sunni Muslims opposed to the Baath Party, government, which is controlled by a small offshoot of Shiite Muslims called Alawites. The largely peaceful protesters called for increased freedoms and the liberation of political prisoners held under Syria's notorious "emergency" law, used for decades to justify detentions without trial.

The government cracked down brutally on the protests, opening fire on demonstrators. The United Nations estimates that more than 5,000 people have died in the conflict and has cited Syria for "gross and systematic violations" of human rights.

At one point, Assad fired governors and Cabinet members and vowed that, over time, he would increase civil liberties. But by April, protesters had begun calling for his ouster

Syrian officials have blamed the ongoing bloodshed on what they describe as armed terrorists supported from abroad. The government has also accused several fellow Arab states of a conspiracy to topple Assad. Meanwhile, the violence has continued.

How has the world reacted to the bloodshed in Syria?

Syria has grown increasingly isolated on the world stage. It has clashed with the Arab League, which suspended its membership in the alliance and imposed economic sanctions for violence against protesters. Though critics say the league has long been a rubber stamp for despots, it has been more aggressive toward Syria in the wake of the Arab Spring.

Antagonism between Syria and the Arab League grew in December after the league sent observers to monitor the government's actions toward protesters. Bringing in the monitors was part of a plan negotiated by the Arab League and agreed to by Assad to end the months of bloodshed.

But the crackdown did not end: Opposition activists said the Arab League team was too small and could be misled by the government.

The Arab League suspended its monitoring mission Sunday and threw its support to a plan calling on Assad to give up power, taking its case to the United Nations. The league, along with Western allies, will face opposition from Russia, which has vowed to veto any measure that calls for regime change in Syria.

Why does Syria matter to the United States and the rest of the world?

The sheer scale of the violence has raised fears of civil war in a nation situated strategically at the heart of the Middle East. It has also become a rallying point against repression in the region.

Syria is a longtime ally of Iran, and strong supporter of the Islamist militant groups Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. If Assad loses his grip, it will probably strengthen the position of other Persian Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia that are at odds with Iran. But while U.S. and other Western officials have long been irritated by Assad, they also fear that a new leader could act more aggressively toward Israel.

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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: Syrians wave flags and photos depicting President Bashar Assad, during a pro-government rally in Damascus on Monday. Credit: Youssef Badawi / EPA

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