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CRS: Syria: Unrest and U.S. Policy

Authors: Jeremy M. Sharp, and Christopher M. Blanchard
May 24, 2012

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After a year of unrest and violence, Syria's political crisis is characterized by dilemmas and contradictions. Members of Congress continue to evaluate possible U.S. policy approaches towards the Syrian crisis, writes this Congressional Research Service report.

Syria remains mired in political confrontation and violence, and is perched on the edge of civil war. U.S. officials and many analysts believe that President Bashar al Asad, his family members, and his supporters will ultimately be forced from power, but few observers offer specific, credible timetables for a resolution to Syria's ongoing political crisis. Some observers warn that theregime's staying power may be underrated. Intense violence generated demands from some international actors for an immediate mutual ceasefire and from others for military intervention to protect civilians or support opposition forces. The United Nations Security Council has endorsed a ceasefire and dialogue plan and granted a limited mandate to 300 military observers. Their presence in Syria has coincided with a lessening of the scope and pace of violence. However, continuing clashes and attacks on civilians and government forces suggest the ceasefire at the heart of the plan may remain elusive. The potential risks and rewards of other options for responding to the crisis are difficult to assess and are evolving with conditions on the ground.

In the face of intense domestic and international pressure calling for political change and for an end to violence against civilians, the Asad government has offered limited reforms while also meeting protests and armed attacks with overwhelming force. Nonviolent protests continue, but their apparent futility has created frustration and anger within the opposition ranks. An increasing number of Syrian civilians have taken up arms in self-defense, although armed rebel attacks alienate some potential supporters. The government accuses the opposition of carrying out bombings and assassinations targeting security infrastructure, security personnel, and civilians in Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, and other areas. Accounts of human rights abuses by both sides persist, with the majority attributed to security forces and military units.

President Obama and his Administration have been calling for Asad's resignation since August 2011, and have been vocal advocates for United Nations Security Council action to condemn the Syrian government and end the bloodshed. The United States has closed its embassy in Damascus, and Ambassador Robert Ford has left Syria. U.S. officials are actively participating in efforts to improve international policy coordination on Syria, such as the Friends of Syria forum that met in Tunis in February and in Istanbul in April. The Administration has given no indication that it intends to pursue any form of military intervention. U.S. officials and some in Congress continue to debate various proposals for ending the violence and accelerating Asad's departure.

After a year of unrest and violence, Syria's political crisis is characterized by dilemmas and contradictions. A menu of imperfect choices confronts U.S. policymakers, amid fears of continued violence, a humanitarian crisis, and regional instability. The potential spillover effects of continued fighting raise questions with regard to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Israel. Larger refugee flows, sectarian conflict, or transnational violence by non-state actors are among the contingencies that policy makers are concerned about in relation to these countries. The unrest also is creating new opportunities for Al Qaeda or other violent extremist groups to operate in Syria. The security of Syrian conventional and chemical weapons stockpiles has become a regional security concern, which will grow if a security vacuum emerges. Many observers worry that an escalation in fighting or swift regime change could generate new pressures on minority groups or lead to wider civil or regional conflict.

Members of Congress are weighing these issues as they debate U.S. policy and the Syrian crisis.

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