The Syrian conflict has been dominating the headlines; but do you know what’s going on, or do you flick off the news? Find out all the basics that you need to know on the country in crisis below.
Compared to its neighbouring countries (Libya, Iraq, Israel), Syria has been in a relatively stable state for the past couple of decades. However, life changed for the civilians of Syria in March 2011. Inspired by the recent uprisings in Libya, anti-government groups were empowered to protest in response to the government arresting, and reportedly torturing, fifteen school children. The demonstrations began peacefully, conveying a message for the need of democracy and greater freedoms. However, these wants escalated to the removal of President Bashar al-Assad from power, once government forces began shooting at the peaceful protesters. Opposition violence also then started to increase until the International Red Cross declared that the conflict within Syria had reached the status of a civil war in July 2012.
President Assad’s family has been in power since 1971, when an authoritarian regime was established. As the recent violence increased, the President offered to make changes to his regime, but these were met with disbelief from protesters. It is unclear exactly who the government opposition consists of as there are many small groups within it. The Free Syrian Army is one of the larger militant rebel groups, but there are several others. On top of this, there are peaceful protesters and political parties who want to remove themselves from any association with their combat-ready peers.
So, if this open rebellion has been taking place for two years already, what has caused western countries (the UK and USA) to consider getting involved now? In two words: chemical weapons. Chemical weapons, also referred to as poison gas, were originally used in the trenches of the First World War. However, since then it has been widely accepted that their effects were so inhumane (sometimes blistering the skin, causing blindness or nerve damage, if not death) that it was agreed to discontinue their manufacture and use. Syria was one of the few nations not to consent to this. On 21st August 2013, there was a Sarin nerve agent attack in the surrounding areas of Damascus. It is thought that this chemical weapon, twenty times more deadly than cyanide, has been in production in Syria since 1980.
The Syrian Government has denied all allegations from western countries that it was behind the August attack. Russia has supported Syrian views that it was the rebel groups that used these weapons of mass destruction. Russia is a close ally to Syria and has been a key reason for the lack of western intervention that has been seen in previous civil wars (e.g. Libya). The risk of the conflict not being contained within Syria was too high for external involvement. However, following the chemical attacks, a vote was held in Parliament to decide if the UK should take militant action or not. This vote was not necessary as the decision could be made without Parliament’s support. As there was a vote though, it has set precedence that Parliament should be consulted on all future foreign military affaires. The verdict was negative, based on the little and unclear evidence about the details in Syria – particularly who was actually using chemical weaponry. Members of Parliament feared that if they said yes, they would have a situation similar to that in Iraq under the Blair administration.
The US and Russia have now created a resolution within the UN Security Council, demanding that Syrian chemical weapons will be handed over to International control within the next year. If this is not complied with, Syria will face consequences imposed by the UN that may involve military action. It is unlikely Russia would side with the western countries over Syria if this were to happen.
Currently, over one million Syrians have found themselves refugees in neighbouring countries such as Iraq and Jordan, as these are the safest places for them to be. More than 100,000 people have been killed in Syria on both sides of the conflict. Although the UK has voted not to help militarily, it can do so monetarily and with provisions, like other countries trying to help. Over half a billion pounds in aid has been sent to Syria – that’s nearly two thousand times the average annual UK salary - but more is still needed to help those caught in the middle of a war torn country.