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      Syrian Crisis Enters Second Year

      In Syria: Saudi Arabia closes embassy; massacres continue; death toll approaches 9,000; some 230,000 are displaced; world remains deadlocked
      By Gabe Kahn.
      First Publish: 3/15/2012, 7:04 PM

      Turkish-Syrian Refugee Camp
      Turkish-Syrian Refugee Camp
      Reuters

      Syria's popular uprising entered its second year on Thursday as the death toll from President Bashar al-Assad's bloody crackdown fast approaches 9,000.

      At least 8,500 civilians have been killed since the uprising began in March 2011, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.

      Saudi Arabia on Thursday shut down its embassy in Syria and withdrew all its staff and diplomats following reports that death squads were massacring civilians in Homs and Idlib.

      “Due the developments in Syria, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has shut down its embassy in Damascus and withdrawn all its diplomats and staff there,” the Saudi foreign ministry said in a statement.

      Reports of war crimes in Syria have become commonplace as Assad's troops conduct mop up operations activists say include systemic rape, torture, and mass executions.

      Saudi Arabia, which has repeatedly pressed for world action against Damascus and called for rebels to be armed, was one of six Gulf monarchies to expel Syria’s ambassadors in February.

      The Syrian Revolution General Commission reported that 77 people killed by security force gunfire across Syria on Wednesday.

      On the ground, Noureddin al-Abdo, an activist in Idlib, told al-Arabiya that the rebel stronghold in northwestern Syria had fallen on Tuesday night after a four-day assault by regime forces.

      The outgunned, rebel “Free Syrian Army (FSA) has withdrawn and regime forces have stormed the entire city and are carrying out house-to-house searches,” said Abdo by telephone.

      The army launched a major offensive in Idlib province near the Turkish border on Saturday, bombarding the city and sweeping into rural areas in a bid to root out armed insurgents.

      Syrian forces have also shelled the rebel stronghold of Rastan where 47 army defectors were summarily executed, and resumed their shelling of the focal protest city of Homs where at least 700 were killed in 26-straight days of sniper and tank fire.

      Meanwhile, officials in Ankara reported that at least 1,000 Syrian refugees crossed into Turkey on Thursday.

      An official said: “We expect this to continue as long as the operation goes on in Idlib,” which is near the Turkish border.

      The United Nations estimates that some 230,000 Syrians have been displaced from their homes, including 30,000 who have fled abroad, raising the prospect of a refugee crisis.

      The world remains deadlocked over what to do about the bloody chaos in Syria and the UN Security Council has found itself hamstrung by vetoes from Moscow and Beijing.

      Russia – which has billions of dollars in oil and arms deals with Syria at stake – has repeatedly blocked attempts to censure Assad, levy sanctions, or intervene in the conflict. This, despite its own rising frustrations with Assad.

      Moscow and Washington have been increasingly at loggerheads over Moscow's refusal to back sanctions against Assad's regime and insistence on selling arms to Assad.

      In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Assad "is going to go down, whether it's a matter of days or a matter of weeks."

      "He can run around and use this horrific violence all he wants, but it's not going to change the fact that his country no longer supports his leadership and certainly doesn't support these tactics," she said.

      The Obama administration opposes military intervention in Syria, saying it could lead to a full blow civil war, but maintain sanctions could hasten Assad's ouster.