Video: Brutal crackdowns on protesters reported in Syria
Explainer: Syria: Land of unrest
Syrian President Bashar Assad is now facing down the most serious threat to his family's four decades of authoritarian rule in this predominantly Sunni country, which is ruled by minority Alawites.
In latest developments, Syria's government approved lifting the country's nearly 50-year-old state of emergency to meet a key demand of anti-government protesters, but also issued a stern warning to demonstrators to call off their challenges to Assad's hard-line rule.
Scores have been killed in towns across the nation as demonstrations have spread, prompting Assad to send the army out on the streets.
Assad has blamed "conspirators" for an extraordinary wave of dissent against his rule.
"Syria stands at a crossroads," said Aktham Nuaisse, a leading human rights activist.
Following are some key issues and facts about Syria.
(Sources: Reuters, The Associated Press, World Bank, State Department, CIA, www.trust.org)
Syria has been under emergency law since the Baath Party took power in 1963 and banned all opposition. Here's a timeline of events since the protests started earlier this month.
The government passed a law lifting emergency rule, enforced since the Baath Party took power in 1963 and banned all opposition.
Security forces break up a silent gathering in Marjeh square in Damascus of about 150 protesters who held up pictures of imprisoned relatives and friends.
The next day human rights group Amnesty International condemns the violent crackdown by security forces. Witnesses told the rights group at least 30 people were arrested.
Security forces kill three protesters in Deraa, residents say, in the most violent response to protests against Syria's ruling elite. The demonstrators were taking part in a peaceful protest demanding political freedoms and an end to corruption in Syria.
Smaller protests take place in the central city of Homs and the coastal town of Banias.
Crowds set fire to the headquarters of the ruling Baath Party in Deraa, residents say. "No, no to emergency law. We are a people infatuated with freedom!" marchers chant.
In Deraa, hundreds of black-uniformed security forces line the streets but do not confront thousands of mourners marching at the funeral of a protester killed in Deraa. March 22 - Hundreds of people march in Deraa and Nawa, two southern Syrian towns, demanding freedom. It is the fifth straight day of demonstrations challenging the government.
Syrian forces kill six people in an attack on protesters in the Omari mosque complex in Deraa, and later open fire on hundreds of youths marching in solidarity.
An official statement says later that President Bashar al-Assad has sacked Deraa regional governor Faisal Kalthoum.
Assad orders the formation of a committee to raise living standards and study scrapping the emergency law in place in Syria for the last 48 years, his adviser says.
At least 200 people march in Damascus and there are reports of at least 23 dead around the country, including for the first time in Damascus.
— In Deraa, thousands march in funerals for some of the dead, chanting "Freedom." Witnesses say protesters haul down a statue of Assad's father, late president Hafez al-Assad, before security forces open fire from buildings.
— Amnesty International says at least 55 people have been killed in Deraa in the last week.
— Hundreds of people chant "freedom" in Hama, where in 1982 thousands of people were killed by Syrian security forces in a crackdown on Islamists.
In an attempt to placate protesters, Assad frees 260 prisoners, and 16 more the next day.
— Twelve people are killed in protests in the town of Latakia. Assad deploys the army there the next day.
The army beefs up its presence in Deraa, focal point of bloody protests across the country.
— Assad is expected to address the nation shortly, officials say.
Armed forces fire into the air to disperse a pro-democracy protest in Deraa as the crowd chanted "We want dignity and freedom" and "No to emergency laws."
— Amnesty cites unconfirmed reports as saying 37 more people had been killed since March 25 in protests in Damascus, Latakia, Deraa and elsewhere.
Government resigns. Assad appoints Naji al-Otari, head of the government that stepped down, as the new caretaker prime minister.
— Thousands of Syrians hold pro-government rallies after two weeks of pro-democracy protests in which at least 60 people have died.
Population: 22 million
Ethnic groups: Mostly Arabs, with Kurd, Turk and Armenian minorities. Syria also hosts a large population of Palestinian refugees.
Religion: Mainly Sunni Muslim, but also Alawites, Shia and Ismailites, and minority Christian denominations.
Language: Arabic is the official language. Minority groups also speak their own languages.
Geography: Syria borders Turkey to the north, Iraq to the east, Jordan and Israel to the south and Lebanon and the Mediterranean to the west.
Syria had taken measures to lift restrictions on business after four decades of failed Soviet-style economic policies and hoped to attract $44 billion, or 83 percent of its GDP, in private investment over the next five years.
U.S. sanctions imposed in 2004 over Syria's role in Iraq and its backing for Hezbollah and Hamas have curbed Western investment. Together with a drought in eastern Syria, the sanctions have made the task of raising living standards and finding jobs for the fast growing population even harder.
Syria's economy will grow by 6 to 7 percent in 2011, up from expected growth of 5 to 6 percent in 2010, according to the central bank Governor Adeeb Mayaleh.
The unrest in Syria, a strategically important country, could have implications well beyond its borders given its role as Iran's top Arab ally and as a front line state against Israel.
Syria has long been viewed by the U.S. as a potentially destabilizing force in the Middle East. An ally of Iran and Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon, it has also provided a home for some radical Palestinian groups.
But the country has been trying to emerge from years of international isolation. The U.S. recently reached out to Syria in the hopes of drawing it away from Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas — although the effort has not yielded much.
Even though Israel and Syria are sworn enemies, many in Israel are fearful that a collapse of Assad's regime might imperil decades of quiet along the shared border.
"That has been the working assumption in Israel for years: Better the devil you know than the devil you don't," said Eyal Zisser, director of the Middle East Studies department at Tel Aviv University. "It was a regime that had really scrupulously maintained the quiet. And who knows what will happen now — Islamic terror, al-Qaida, chaos?"
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