Now, the conflict is a full-blown civil war, and activists say more than 17,000 people have been killed. There are fears the violence and chaos could spread across the region.
On Tuesday, Israel’s military intelligence chief warned that global jihadists have moved into Syrian territory bordering the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights and could soon use the area to stage attacks on the Jewish state.
Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh said the kingdom was taking precautions to ward off a possible Syrian chemical attack, but declined to say what they were.
Also Tuesday, Iraq’s government called for all its citizens in Syria to return home following the recent killing of two Iraqi journalists covering the conflict.
Thousands of Iraqis fled to Syria to escape widespread sectarian fighting during the worst of violence in their homeland between 2005 and 2007. Now, the traffic is heading the other way, with Iraqis and Syrian refugees heading east and out of the conflict that the International Red Cross has officially designated a civil war.
As the violence spirals out of control, diplomatic efforts to halt the bloodshed have seemingly come to a dead end. The U.S. and many Western nations have called on Assad to leave power, while Russia, China and Iran have stood by the regime.
Russia and China have veto power at the U.N. Security Council.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for rapid, unified action by the Security Council on Syria as he arrived in Beijing on Tuesday as part of a diplomatic push to get Russia and China to back a tougher response to attacks by Assad’s regime.
Ban’s trip comes ahead of a Security Council vote Wednesday on whether to allow sanctions and authorize actions to enforce them that could ultimately include the use of military force, which U.S. and European officials are playing down as a possibility.
A Western-backed resolution at the Security Council calls for sanctions and invokes Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter. A Chapter 7 resolution authorizes actions that can ultimately include the use of military force — something the Obama administration and European officials are playing down as a possibility.
As the violence in Syria escalates, the number of Syrians fleeing the bloodshed has swelled to some 112,000, according to the U.N. The U.N. refugee agency said women and children make up three-quarters of those has assisted in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.
In addition, several recent defections by high-ranking Syrian officials have buoyed Western powers and anti-regime activists. Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass, an Assad confidante and son of a former defense minister, who defected earlier this month, was confirmed Tuesday to be in France.
Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue and Elizabeth A. Kennedy in Beirut, Ali Akbar Dareini in Tehran and Alexa Olesen in Beijing contributed to this report.