Understanding The Syrian Civil War

Photo courtesy of Freedom House via Flickr. Modified by Curiousmatic.

Syria has been engaged in a deadly civil war since 2011. Why is the conflict happening, and where do other nations stand?

Syria, the middle-eastern nation along the shore of the Mediterranean, has been engaged in a violent civil war between government and rebel protesters since 2011. Since the civil war began over 191,000 people have dies,  worsening in August of 2013 when chemical weapons were introduced.

Here’s a summary on Syria’s civil war, and the implications of U.S. action.

Why is there civil war in Syria?

Civil war began with non-violent protests against dictatorship’s denial of personal freedoms and opportunities; known as the Arab Spring, protests that erupted first in Egypt and Tunisia inspired Syrian citizens to challenge their own government’s harsh rule.

While Syria is mainly Sunni Muslim at about 59.1%, PBS reports, it is run by a minority sect known as the Alawites. An offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, the Alawite comprise about 12% of the nation’s population.

President Bashar ali-Assad and his regime met protests with violent crackdowns, sparking opposition that became recognized as National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces; according to Reuters, rebel forces now control much of the north and east of the country.

Death tolls have reached over 191,000, with those forced to flee their homes at 9 million, Al Jazeera states.

Where do other nations stand?

While the U.S. and other Western powers have opposed Assad’s violent crackdowns since the beginning, alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians in Damascus on August 21 has lead some nations, including America and France, to feel obligated to take action against Assad’s forces.

Taking action against Assad would in theory show that chemical warfare will not be tolerated or let occur without consequences. While an attack might not be constructive to the Syrian conflict, it would hopefully prevent further use of poisonous gases against civilians as well as maintain the credibility of a global ban, the Financial Times reports.

Other powers, such as Russia and China, disagree with Western opinion. China, according to the Rising Powers Initiative, believes American motives are not for liberty and democracy of the Middle East, but to “change the political landscape in the Middle East for their own benefit.” China is also historically against regime interventions.

Russia opposes the decision to attack without the approval of the UN, noting that an intervention would be regarded as globally illegitimate, and a possible prelude to a standoff with Iran, Syria’s main ally. Russia also fears the consequences of regime changes, which have been proved tumultuous in Libya and Egypt, according to NPR.

It should also be noted Russia has great political, stragetic, and economical interest in Syria, which hosts a Russian naval base and purchases Russian weaponry; it is a major Middle Eastern ally that Russia can’t afford to lose and still remain the power that it is.

What are the different claims?

The Syrian government has denied involvement in the use of chemical weapons, describing the claims as “false and completely baseless,” according to the BBC.

A report from the White House, however, asserts it’s high confidence that Syrian government was behind the attack, citing witnesses, reports, and knowledge of the regime’s possession of chemical agents that the opposition did not have.

A report from Russian Foreign Ministry, in contrast, suggests that the chemical attack was likely executed by the rebels against Assad in a strategic move to provoke U.S. action. The report cites another chemical attack on March 19, for which evidence pointed to rebel-made weaponry.

French and British Intelligences’ assessments concluded that the attacks were almost certainly made by the regime against opposition, in agreement with U.S. opinion. Findings also suggest Assad’s government is culpable for 13 other chemical attacks nationwide.

What could happen?

Already, Syrians are in a state of crisis. With millions displaced from their homes and deprived of their livelihoods, aid is needed desperately as refugees struggle to meet even their most basic needs of food, water, shelter, and medical care.

If the U.S. strikes against Syria, it likely would not end the civil war. Critics of military intervention say that involvement could intensify sectarian tensions, which would trigger war between regions and bordering nations. Assad, too, warned that U.S. action could create chaos and extremism, as recorded in an interview with a French special envoy.

American attack could likely also lead to their putting troops on the ground, as has happened in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, resulting in another expensive long-term war. On the other hand, not acting could lead to more chemical warfare or other use of weapons of mass destruction unpunished in the Middle East, and the consequences of such treacherous tactics.

Breaking Updates

9/17/2013: Russia and America reach agreement on Syria. Syria will hand over and destroy chemical weapons. Click to expand.

After U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s offhand comment that Syria could hand over weapons and evade U.S. intervention, Russia quickly took note of this suggestion and turned it into a proposal – that Syria would put their chemical weapons into international control, have them destroyed, and join the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, according to the Washington Post.

Syria president Assad was quick to comply. Russia and the U.S. have since agreed on an outline for the identification and seizure of Syrian chemical weapons. Syria must turn over an accounting of its arsenal within a week. If Syria breaks goes back on their deal, U.S. attack could still be a possible consequence.

We measure success by the understanding we deliver. If you could express it as a percentage, how much fresh understanding did we provide?
Jennifer Markert