What You Need To Know About The Crisis In Syria

1Photo: REX USA/The Times / Esa Alexander/Rex
September 10: With American citizens becoming increasingly wary about the prospect of military engagement in Syria, President Bashar al-Assad has reportedly accepted a deal from Russian officials to place Syrian chemical weapons under international control. The agreement was made in hopes of avoiding US intervention on the ground. President Obama will address the nation at 9 p.m. EST tonight, providing an update on the situation and the country's plans to intervene. The speech will be broadcast on all major networks, and you can also watch a live stream here. (CNN)
August 31, 1:15 PM EST: President Obama issued a statement from the White House today saying he's willing to take military action against President Bashar Assad. "This attack is an assault on human dignity. It also presents a serious danger to our national security," he explained. Now all that's needed is the go-ahead from Congress. This all comes after the U.N. left for the Netherlands with soil, blood, and urine samples from Damascus victims to determine what happened during the attacks. (USA Today)
August 30th, 3:00 PM EST: Obama stated today that he and his administration have not made any formal decisions yet about what to do, and that whatever choice is eventually made, the result will be a "limited, narrow act...We're not considering any open-ended commitment. We're not considering any boots-on-the-ground approach." Additionally, last night, he clarified that "although what's happened [in Damascus] is tragic, what I've also concluded is that direct military engagement, involvement in the civil war in Syria, will not help the situation on the ground." For the moment, it seems no decision will be made in the immediate future, especially considering any action would most likely call for discussion with Congress (on summer holiday until September 9).
1:00 p.m. EST: Secretary of State John Kerry has announced that the Obama administration will release a report later today stating in detail the case against the Assad regime. "I'm not asking you to take my word for it," he explained, asking critics to "read for yourselves the verdict reached by our intelligence community." Citing the report, Kerry stated that 1,429 people were killed in a chemical attack, including over 400 children. (USA Today)
11:00 a.m. EST: Though British Prime Minister David Cameron said he strongly supported a response in Syria, today Parliament voted against any action. The vote is non-binding but Cameron said in a statement that if the British people and Parliament do not want military action, "I get that, and the government will act accordingly." CBC News also reports that Russia has sent warships into the Mediterranean. The United Nations chemical weapons team currently inspecting the site is expected to send a report by this Saturday.
Originally published on August 28: While the conflict in Syria has been raging for two years, the situation has come to a head on the international stage in the past week. Many of us have been following the news with horror, and we realize there are still many people with questions, including our own friends and coworkers. A civil war — especially in the context of a larger uprising within the Middle East — is a complex, multi-faceted crisis situation, but below, we've fleshed out what we feel are the most important parts. Read on to brush up, answer your burning questions, or just to figure out what the heck everyone's been talking about.
The Background
The current civil war in Syria officially began during the 2011 Arab Spring protests, but unrest had been brewing among its citizens for sometime. Bashar al-Assad's presidency is the culmination of four decades of reign by his family, which has been causing tension within the Sunni-majority country (Assad is a member of the Alawite religious group). When Libya and Egypt staged uprisings to overthrow dictatorial leaders, the fever caught on in Syria as well. Citizens formed peaceful protests against the Assad regime, but the government responded with violence, killing civilians and sparking further retaliation within the country that slowly became radicalized.
At first the conflict broke into two basic groups: The government forces (led by Assad) and civilians who resented the political regime. Citizens began to arm themselves (helped at first by army defectors and the Turkish government) and organized as the Free Syrian Army. However, over time the FSA became dominated by Islamist extremists (including some affiliated with Al Qaeda), bolstered by Sunni rulers in Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The rebels, as the overarching group is now referred to, slowly split into fractured groups, with the more radical fighters taking over areas to the north and east of Damascus, and the more secular fighters holding court in the southern suburbs.
At this point in the fighting — which has consisted of everything from widespread shelling to calculated sniper shootouts — over 100,000 are dead (according to estimates from the United Nations) and millions more have been displaced as they seek shelter in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. Refugees have caused tensions to rise in these neighboring countries, and violence is starting to overflow across the Syrian border as well. The humanitarian crisis has become even more intensified, as provisions in the country dwindle and the escalating warfare makes it nearly impossible to bring supplies into the country.
The Latest Developments
Last week, the Syrian government crossed what many believe to be a "red line," launching a chemical attack on a suburb of Damascus. Not only did the attack allegedly kill hundreds of civilians (including scores of children), but it violated international law. CNN released disturbing video of the immediate aftermath of the attack, showing the horrifying effects of what is allegedly nerve gas wreaking havoc on residents of the Ghouta district and prompting international leaders to send a UN envoy of investigators to the site.
Many political leaders (including Barack Obama) were initially hesitant to jump to conclusions about the attack, especially as the UN investigators struggled to obtain solid evidence of nerve gas (the Syrian government initially banned the envoy from the site of the attack). However, recent confirmation of the use of chemical weapons has escalated the discussion of military intervention.
Several countries, including the U.K., have urged the use of force against the Assad regime, claiming that failing to intervene will only encourage Syria (and, possibly, other countries) to continue to launch similar attacks. Russia, which has been one of the Syrian government's strongest allies, has warned that any attack from outside forces could further destabilize the civil war or prompt retaliatory attacks (nearby Israel would be most at risk). President Obama has deplored the chemical attacks and vowed to take action, but the United States has been slow to make any hard-edged decisions. The White House has admitted in several statements that the Assad regime's actions were unforgivable, but urged the thoughtful consideration of every option. In short, the U.S. prefers to consider the long game before committing to military intervention.
What To Expect
As of press time, a final decision on a response to the chemical-weapons attack is still looming. Prime Minister David Cameron, of Great Britain, announced plans to introduce a resolution authorizing the use of force at a United Nations Security Council meeting. International law requires approval for any military action, and despite the protests from Vladimir Putin and the rest of the Russian government, intervention seems imminent. However, if there is no consensus from the UN, there is always the option of sending in coalition forces — according to The New York Times, Britain appears to be laying the groundwork for a U.S.-led team.
If a military attack does occur, there's a very little chance it would be a full-scale "boots on the ground" operation (think the war in Afghanistan) or even an attempt to oust Assad (as with Libya). Instead, any action would most likely target the military units that launched the chemical attacks, in an attempt to destabilize or halt more attacks. The most important thing to remember in this situation is that Syria is an extremely unstable country without a clear "good" side — while the Assad regime has no doubt committed the most grievous crimes, the extremist groups among the rebels also pose a threat. In the end, the main goal is to protect the country's innocent civilians and prevent further death and destruction.

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