Syria: a brief history of the conflict
Today's Syrian state was established after the First World War as a French mandate, and represented the largest Arab state to emerge from the formerly Ottoman-ruled Arab Levant, known in Arabic as Sham.
It gained independence in April 1946, as a parliamentary republic. The modern state encompasses the sites of several ancient kingdoms and empires.
Damascus is the capital city of Syria and the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. Latakia along with Tartus are Syria's main ports on the Mediterranean sea. Other major cities include Aleppo in northern Syria, Hama in central Syria, Homs in the south of Hama and Deir ez-Zor on the Euphrates River in eastern Syria.
What is happening in Syria?
Pro-democracy protests erupted in March 2011 after the arrest and torture of a group of teenagers who had painted revolutionary slogans on their school's walls in the southern city of Deraa. One of these children was a 13-year old boy called Hamza Al Khattib. He and several others were detained by security forces for interrogation.
A month after Hamza was arrested his body was returned to his parents. There was evidence that he had been the victim of extreme torture including severe burns to his feet, face, elbow and knees and there were bullet wounds through both arms, whilst his neck was also broken. It was also evident that electric shock devices had been used, and the young boy had been whipped with cables.
People in Deraa were shocked and protested against the arrest and treatment of the children. Security forces opened fire on them, killing four. The next day, the authorities shot at mourners at the victims' funerals, killing another person. People then began demanding the overthrow of President Bashar Al-Assad across the country.
The Assad regime first reacted with a combination of minor concessions and force. It ended the 48-year-long state of emergency and introduced a new constitution but at the same time, continued to use violence, besieging opposition strongholds. Parts of the opposition soon became armed and sought to defend themselves and their localities. The Free Syrian Army formed out of defectors from the national army.
According to the UN, tens of thousands have so far been killed in Syria and millions have been displaced. UN peace envoy Kofi Annan mediated a ceasefire early in 2012 but by April that year it had been violated. Reports of massacres by government forces in the Houla area and village of Qubair put an end to the fragile ceasefire and the UN pulled out all of its observers. Several months later, Kofi Annan recognised his failure to bring about peace in the country and resigned from his post.
A militia mainly drawn from President Bashar al-Assad's Alawite sect known as the 'Shabiha' (ghosts) continued a fierce campaign of terror against civilians with accounts of mass rapes of men, women and children, often followed by shooting or slaughter of the victim. The government stepped up its military attack by deploying tanks and fighter jets to drop a mixture of barrel bombs and cluster bombs often in densely populated civilian areas.
Though some have termed the conflict in Syria a civil war, there remains a large mismatch between the military capability of the Syrian forces and the opposing FSA fighters; the biggest casualties throughout the conflict have been civilian.
A summary of Syrian politics
Syria is a country of 21 million people with a Sunni Muslim majority (74%) and significant minorities of Alawites - the Shia heterodox sect to which the president Bashar Al-Assad belongs - and Christians. Mr Assad promotes a secular identity for the country, but he has concentrated power in the hands of family and other Alawites. Opposition remains strongest among the poorer sections of the majority Sunni community.
The family of President Bashar al-Assad has been in power since his father, Hafez, took over in a coup in 1970. The country underwent some liberalisation after Bashar became president in 2000, but the pace of change soon slowed, if not reversed. Critics are imprisoned, domestic media are tightly controlled, and economic policies often benefit the elite. The country's human rights record is among the worst in the world.
Under the sanctions imposed by the Arab League, US and EU, Syria's two most vital sectors, tourism and oil, have ground to a halt in recent months. The IMF says Syria's economy contracted by 2% in 2011, while the value of the Syrian pound has crashed. Unemployment is high and access to basic needs including food, water, electricity, and medical supplies are almost non-existant in conflict-affected areas
Adapted from BBC News Online - Syria: Guide to the Conflict