How this all began
The current crisis in Syria began in 2011, with civilian protests launched during a wave of pro-democracy sentiment known as the Arab Spring. Those protests were met with harsh repression from the Syrian government under the leadership of President Bashar al-Assad. Assad’s regime continued to crackdown on protesters, eventually resorting to massive human rights abuses including torture, disappearances, extrajudicial executions and detention of medical patients. In response, civilians began to take up arms against the Syrian government, transforming a peaceful movement to increase democratic freedoms into an all-out civil war. Since the beginning of the conflict, more than 70,000 Syrians have died.
Who’s doing the fighting
Over the past two years, the make-up of the Syrian opposition has shifted considerably. In the beginning, the opposition was composed mostly of civil society leaders and Syrian citizens with a small armed group taking shape across the border in Turkey. Since then, the rebels have spawned an entire network of loosely affiliated groups fighting against the Assad regime — and each other at times. Instead of hiding across the border, rebels now openly control a large swath of territory in the north and west of the country as the Syrian government continues to push back.
While many of the rebel groups are secular, recent months have shown an influx of foreign fighters into the country, seeking to impose a harsh version of Islam upon Syria once the Assad regime falls. The U.S. has labeled one such group — Jabhat al-Nusra — a terrorist group for its close ties to Al Qaeda. These murky connections between the rebels and jihadis have proved difficult for Western governments seeking to effect the situation on the ground.
The effect on the Syrian people and the region
As time wore on in the conflict, the Syrian government unleashed more and greater violence was against civilians, including the use of armored vehicles, fixed-wing aircraft and mortars against whole neighborhoods. Making matters worse, rebels are now accused of taking part in atrocities as well.
This has all led to a massive humanitarian crisis in Syria and the surrounding region. As of March, more than one million Syrians have fled into the neighboring countries of Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, placing a massive strain on those states’ governments. According to the United Nations, over 4.25 million Syrians are now internally displaced within the country.
Did Syria use chemical weapons?
Whether or not the Syrian government utilized chemical weapons against its people is the primary reason Syria has exploded back into the news. Last week, the United States announced that it has evidence that chemical weapons were used in Syria, namely sarin. That revelation comes with several caveats, however: the chain of custody of the evidence the U.S. has isn’t clear, nor is exactly how the samples obtained were exposed to the chemical. The U.S. government has also not declared definitively whether or not it was the Assad regime that used sarin, an act that would cross a “red-line” the administration set forth as an action that would spur greater intervention.
The United States’ response
The Obama administration has declared several times that the Assad regime’s days are numbered and that the Syrian president must go. So far, however, the United States has stuck with its policy of providing humanitarian aid — more than $385 million worth to date — to Syria’s civilians and providing “non-lethal aid” to the opposition. That includes a recent decision to provide items such as night-vision goggles and bullet-proof vests to the rebels. The United States is also heavily involved in coordinating the flow of weapons to Syria from Gulf states while not providing such arms itself.
The question that remains is whether a greater U.S. intervention is necessary, and if so in what form. The range of possible responses under consideration range from directly providing arms to the Syrian opposition to establishing a No-Fly Zone in Syria to protect civilians and give the rebels cover to operate. The debate does not evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, with members on both sides advocating for swift action in Syria and members of both parties urging caution in proceeding forward. Even hawks like Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), however, are coming out against the idea of American boots being on the ground in Syria.
The current policy towards Syria does not appear to be in the U.S.’ best interests, however. “It is time for a change in policy,” CAP experts said in a report on the situation in Syria released in February. “The United States needs to increase its assistance to the Syrian opposition with the goal of supporting an alternative opposition government that is better organized than at present.” The report says that the U.S. could offer to provide arms via the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces and the Supreme Military Council — the umbrella group that covers all of the opposition’s political and military operations — if it meets certain “organizational incentives.”