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4 things to know about Syria

By Jason Miks, CNN
January 21, 2014 -- Updated 1955 GMT (0355 HKT)
In this photo provided by the anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center, Syrian men help survivors out of a building in Aleppo after it was bombed, allegedly by a Syrian regime warplane on Saturday, February 8. The United Nations estimates more than 100,000 people have been killed since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011. Click through to see the most compelling images taken during the conflict, which is now a civil war: In this photo provided by the anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center, Syrian men help survivors out of a building in Aleppo after it was bombed, allegedly by a Syrian regime warplane on Saturday, February 8. The United Nations estimates more than 100,000 people have been killed since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011. Click through to see the most compelling images taken during the conflict, which is now a civil war:
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(CNN) -- Peace talks, a gruesome report complete with images detailing alleged torture, and frigid temperatures that have left thousands of refugees freezing in makeshift camps -- it has been an unsettling and uncertain start to the year for Syria. To help make sense of the latest developments, CNN has put together an overview of what has been happening over the past month.

A smoking gun?

"Any prosecutor would like this kind of evidence -- the photos and the process. This is direct evidence of the regime's killing machine." So says one of the authors of a new report on the Syrian regime, revealed exclusively by CNN, which was put together by a team of war crimes prosecutors and forensic experts.

The photos in the report allegedly show bodies with clear signs of starvation, brutal beatings and strangulation, among other forms of torture. The regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has consistently denied abusing human rights, instead blaming rebels for any wrongdoing. But human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, say the images in the report are in keeping with their own findings.

"The allegations are consistent with aspects of Amnesty International's own research into torture and enforced disappearance by the Syrian government and must be taken seriously," Philip Luther, Amnesty's Middle East and North Africa director, said Tuesday.

"The Geneva II peace conference must treat this as an absolute priority."

Gruesome Syria photos may prove torture by Assad regime

Peace conference -- Part 2

The peace conference Luther is referring to is the latest international effort aimed at ending Syria's civil war. Scheduled to start Wednesday in Switzerland, the talks are to be attended by the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council -- Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States -- Syria's main opposition Syrian National Coalition, and more than two dozen other countries. A preliminary international session is scheduled for Wednesday in Montreux, with talks between the Syrian government and opposition delegations slated to begin Friday in Geneva. The talks, which follow on an "action group" meeting held in June 2012, will mark the first time that opposition representatives will have been in face-to-face talks with the Assad regime since the conflict erupted in March 2011.

Russia criticizes rescinding of Iran's invitation

Iran is invited. No it isn't

Tehran looked like it might also be joining the talks after the United Nations issued a surprise invitation Sunday. However, the move sparked outrage and threats to boycott the talks from Syria's opposition. The United States weighed in against Iran taking part, and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced Monday that the invitation had been rescinded (although Iran had already announced it would not be attending because it refused to accept any preconditions for joining the talks.) Russia, for its part, criticized Ban's reversal, but said the decision was "not a catastrophe."

Frigid temperatures

With 2.4 million registered refugees requiring shelter, the enormity of the humanitarian crisis was already abundantly clear. But frigid temperatures have left makeshift camps and host nations stretched thin as they try to cope with an influx of refugees from a conflict that has already claimed more than 100,000 lives.

For more on Syria's refugees and how to help, visit Impact Your World

Lebanon alone is host to around 1 million refugees, a number the United Nations has predicted could swell to 1.5 million by the end of this year. "Syrian refugees in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley thought life couldn't get much harsher. But that was before winter storm 'Alexa' moved in," CNN's Mohammed Jamjoom reported last month. "The rain and snow have since made things even more miserable."

Within Syria, with nighttime temperatures hovering close to freezing, the struggles of refugees are being compounded by an inability to get aid to those who most need it. Indeed, only last week, the United Nations warned that repeated obstruction of aid convoys to a Palestinian camp just outside Damascus could be a war crime.

"The extent of malnutrition, and the numbers who have died directly or indirectly because of it, are not known for sure," U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said. "But it is crystal clear that the situation in Yarmouk is now extremely desperate, and that civilians are dying as a result. Government forces and affiliated militias appear to be imposing collective punishment on the civilians in Yarmouk."

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