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Syria Explained

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Chances are that in the last few weeks you have heard about the conflict in Syria. Although complicated, the Syrian conflict is worth spending a few minutes trying to understand because it poses issues that could have a major impact on our country and the world order as a whole.

To better understand the situation globally, we have to first look directly at the conflict in Syria. In April 2011, the President of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, began to try and suppress protests against his government. These protests quickly turned violent and led Syria into the civil war that is ravaging the country today. It is important to note that around 12 percent of Syria's population, including the majority of the Assad family, is part of the Alawite religious faction, a subset of Shi'ite Muslim. We will not get into a breakdown of the difference between the major sects of Islam, but it is important to know that although this 12 percent represents a minority of the population in Syria, they have exercised a monopoly over the country's political leadership for nearly four decades.

The majority of Syrians are actually Sunni Muslim and comprise about 75 percent of the total population. There is also a small sect of Syrian Kurds. This other 88 percent of the population was largely discriminated against by the Alawites and the Assad regime. Their frustration with Assad was the cause for their initial protests that escalated very quickly into violent clashes between the military of the Syrian government and the opposition movement. Over time this clash greatly expanded into a full-out civil war that has displaced (in other words, forced people to abandon their homes and flee) over two million Syrians and has resulted in over 100,000 casualties.

Syria borders several countries that are of strategic importance to the U.S., including Iraq, Lebanon, and Turkey.

Key players to know are:

  • The Free Syrian Army ("FSA"), comprised of many ex-military forces and Sunni Muslims, is a secular movement for the sole purpose of President al-Assad's removal from power. Once the protests became violent at the initial start of the war in 2011 and Assad began killing his own people, many Syrian troops broke away and created the FSA.


  • Al-Nusra Front is a radical Muslim group affiliated with the terrorist group al-Qaeda, working within Syria. Together the FSA and Al-Nusra make up the opposition movement against al-Assad, but they represent completely different ideals: Al-Nusra being radical Muslim, and the FSA being secular. Several clashes have taken place between the groups because of their differences.


  • The Syrian Government, run by Bashar al-Assad, is trying to suppress the opposition and maintain control throughout the country.


  • Russia and Iran support al-Assad and his government.


  • China is a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council; they have stayed distant from intervention, although condemning the use of chemical weapons.


  • The United States supports the FSA with non-lethal aid (food, medical equipment, and other types of humanitarian assistance), but has remained neutral.


  • Hezbollah is a Lebanese militant group that has crossed the border to fight in support of al-Assad and his government.


  • United States Secretary of State, John Kerry, has been the U.S. representative most heavily involved in the discussion with Russia over Syria


  • Saudi Arabia is the main supporter of the opposition in the region.

Now that the major players and locations in this conflict are set out, it will be very clear why this conflict has become such a major issue in the last few weeks.

In the late spring of 2013, around two years into Syria's civil war, the Obama Administration acknowledged that this conflict was a travesty, but at the same time made clear that the U.S. would not intervene directly in Syria, unless there was proof of the use of chemical weapons, which Obama referred to as the "red line" of global intervention. This all changed on August 21, 2013 when cell phone videos were released onto the Internet showing hundreds of Syrians being gassed to death in a suburb just outside Damascus, the capital of Syria. In total, over 1,429 Syrians were killed, 426 of them being children. The majority of the victims were innocent civilian Sunni Muslims. The chemical used in the attack was identified by the United Nations as sarin, a very dense, invisible, and odorless gas.

The United Kingdom, the United States, France, Saudi Arabia, and several other countries agreed that a limited strike to punish al-Assad's regime for the chemical weapons attacks was not only appropriate, but necessary as the "red line" had been crossed. These powers also all agreed that Assad's government forces were to blame for the attacks.

President Obama's call to arms gets a little complicated for two reasons. The first is that Russia and China, two countries with whom the U.S. has had rocky relations in recent years, have large economic ties to Syria and also do not support Western intervention in the region. Also worth noting is the fact that China and Russia are among the five permanent powers in the U.N. who can veto any resolution they want. In other words, to the extent that the international community wants to take U.N.-approved action to stop the bloodshed in Syria, it would need to get Russia and China on-board first.

The Russia-China dynamic put the U.N. Security Council in gridlock, making it almost impossible to create a limited strike that will get the necessary approval in the U.N. The two powers also dispute al-Assad's involvement in the attack. The White House claims that the evidence they have, such as the fact that the Syrian government's military handed out gas masks to its forces and that the attacks were launched from areas controlled by the Syrian army, conclusively proves that al-Assad's government was behind these attacks.

The second reason the situation becomes even more complicated for the U.S. is that Syria's opposition forces, while the country's primary hope for democracy, are actually quite fractured because their members have many different interests. Some members are radical Muslims, part of the Al-Nusra Front affiliated with al-Qaeda. Others are more moderate Muslims who are striving for a secular democracy. This diversity of interests and ties to terrorist organizations make the U.S., U.K., and any other country's decision to support the opposition forces a much harder one.

To make matters even more difficult for the international community, the sources of conflict in Syria's civil war are not confined to its borders. Russia has been accused of secretly supplying the al-Assad regime with weapons and ammunition. Iran as well has been supplying Assad's forces with weapons, while Saudi Arabia and Qatar fund and support the opposition. This majorly complicates the proposition of a limited strike, because if you think back to your high school European history class, this could easily be the Franz-Ferdinand of the new WWIII. The al-Assad regime disputes any claims that they were behind the attack and blames the opposition.

The opposition's ties to radical terrorist groups, mixed with the unknown blame of who actually executed the attacks, pressured governments to halt a limited strike until the U.N. had finished their inspection for the use of sarin, the chemical nerve gas implicated. First to back down was the U.K. as Prime Minister David Cameron received massive backlash from his constituents on his support for a strike.

The Obama Administration also came largely under fire from civilians as Secretary of State John Kerry and President Obama pushed for the U.S. led strike. As opposition rose in the U.S., the President moved the action to be voted upon in Congress. The President could have gone directly and attacked if he liked, but he went to Congress so he could lobby representatives around the idea, and use that as representation for his support.

Congress initially showed support for the attack for many reasons, but over time more and more representatives in Congress began to oppose the strike, and the fate of the vote became unclear. Many Americans, outraged at the thought of the U.S. 'defending' the side of al-Qaeda, contacted their representatives in unbridled anger. A fear of going down a similar path as Iraq also raised some trepidation between representatives in Congress. To this end, President Obama made clear in his recent speech on Syria that the U.S. is "not the world's policemen," the attack would not be meant to favor or support any side in the civil war, nor would American boots be put on the ground. Even with the President's affirmation of his stance, the plan was still met with some skepticism.

Though before the vote in Congress took place, in an effort to calm international tensions, Russia proposed a resolution to the Syrian government to hand over all chemical weapons to the U.N. The congressional vote was put on hold and the Syrian government gladly accepted seeing it as an easy way out of what could have been an international strike against them.

Just recently, U.S. and Russian diplomats worked out a U.N. resolution to have Syria hand over all chemical weapons into international hands to have them destroyed. Under Chapter VII of the U.N. charter, the Syrian government would be subject to international force if they did not fully comply. This was a huge step forward in Russian-U.S. relations, although the two superpowers still disagree on many things.

Even though this resolution will hopefully put a halt to any chemical weapons use in Syria in the future, the civil war still rages on with millions displaced and casualties hitting the hundreds of thousands.