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Syria's Crisis and the Global Response

Authors: Zachary Laub, Associate Writer, and Jonathan Masters, Deputy Editor
Updated: September 11, 2013
This publication is now archived.

Where does the Syrian crisis stand?

Syria's civil war continued unabated in late-2013 amid international debate on how to mediate the nearly two-and-a-half-year-old conflict that has killed more than 100,000 people and displaced millions more. In September, the United States seemed poised to launch limited, punitive air strikes on the Assad regime for its alleged use of chemical weapons, but a potential UN-sponsored plan to neutralize Syria's chemical arms stockpiles may forestall Western military intervention.

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On the ground, the Syrian opposition remains divided between so-called moderates and extremists with divergent visions for a post-Assad government. The unrest has proved a magnet for militant Islamists, including al-Qaeda affiliates and Iranian-backed Hezbollah. Refugee outflows, the threat of weapons proliferation, and widening sectarian rifts have stoked fears that the civil war may engulf the wider region.

Who are the Syrian opposition?

The Syrian resistance remains highly fractured both politically and militarily, which has tempered foreign support and efforts to establish an alternative government.

In November 2012, several opposition factions came together in Doha, Qatar, to form an umbrella group in exile known as the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (SC). The group, which replaced the troubled Syrian National Council, has affirmed its commitment to a "democratic, pluralistic Syria based on the rule of law and civil state." Sheikh Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib, a moderate Islamist cleric and prominent national figure within Syria, was elected as the coalition's first president; he announced his resignation in April 2013, expressing frustration with what he said was lack of international support. Saudi-backed Ahmad Jarba, a former political prisoner, was elected as his successor in July. The coalition "does not yet have the capacity to deliver assistance inside Syria," the Congressional Research Service notes [PDF].

The SC took the Assad regime's seat at the Arab League summit in Dubai and opened its first embassy, in Qatar, in March 2013. The United States recognizes the coalition as the "legitimate representative of the Syrian people," hoping it will serve as a counterweight to extreme Islamist groups fighting in Syria, including Jabhat al-Nusra, which is tied to al-Qaeda in Iraq, and Ahrar al-Sham. These groups have proven among the most effective opposition fighters, and have begun establishing municipal governments in areas under their control. Foreign jihadis have joined their ranks and are streaming into Syria, officials say, at rates higher than that of Iraq at its insurgency's peak. Some analysts view the Syrian conflict as two parallel civil wars: one between the regime and the opposition, and the other between opposition moderates and extremists.

The Free Syrian Army (FSA) was formed in August 2011 by army defectors intent on deposing Assad. Under Saudi and Qatari pressure to form a unified command, the FSA formed the Supreme Military Council (SMC), selecting Brigadier General Salim Idriss as top commander in December 2012. The FSA counts Islamists among its commanders and troops, but Ambassador Robert Ford testified before Congress that "Idriss and those under his command have demonstrated a commitment to a tolerant and inclusive vision of Syria" [PDF]. While the FSA has improved its tactical capacities, it does not have operational control over all its affiliated brigades.

Syria war map

What are the prospects for a UN-brokered peace agreement?

Lakhdar Brahimi, a veteran diplomat from Algeria, replaced Kofi Annan as the UN-Arab League special envoy to Syria in September 2012. He has pressed the Geneva Plan [PDF], agreed to in 2012, which calls for a cease-fire, the formation of a transitional government, and elections.

U.S. secretary of state John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, affirmed their support for a Geneva peace conference in August 2013, but offered little in the way of a strategy to bring the warring sides to the table. Rebels appear unwilling to consider a plan that does not include Assad's ouster, while Assad is unwilling to go voluntarily. Moreover, neither side seems willing to negotiate from a perceived position of weakness.

Washington and Moscow disagree over who should attend—Tehran being a point of contention—and Brahimi has said divisions within the opposition are a further hindrance. His "ability to broker any agreement," the International Crisis Group writes, "will remain negligible as long as outside players continue to equate a political settlement with their foes' capitulation."

The Assad regime's alleged use of chemical weapons in August has only complicated international discussions of a peace process. In early September, Moscow stated that so-called Geneva II talks would be "put off for a long time, if not forever," if the United States launched punitive military action against Syria.

What has been the policy of Middle East governments?

The Arab League suspended Syria's membership and imposed economic sanctions on Damascus in November 2011, unprecedented moves by the twenty-two-nation bloc. The following January, the League called for Assad to step down and requested a supporting resolution from the UN Security Council, which was vetoed by Russia and China. In March 2013, the League invited Khatib, then the SC president, to take Syria's seat at its Dubai summit.

Turkey broke with Damascus after the government crackdown intensified, and has since led calls for Assad to step down. Relations reached a boiling point in October 2012 when Turkey shelled Syrian targets after a series of cross-border mortar attacks. Ankara has hosted elements of the opposition and facilitated arms shipments to Syrian territory.

Arab governments, including Gulf states and Jordan, have provided arms and financial and diplomatic support to the opposition. At the United States' urging, both Saudi Arabia and Qatar agreed to halt support to extremist groups, funneling arms through the Supreme Military Council instead. Sudan, vying for influence and profits, has supplied some of the military equipment paid for by Arab donor states despites its close ties with Iran and China.

What are the U.S. sanctions on Syria?

The State Department designated Syria a state sponsor of terrorism in 1979, subjecting it to sanctions and cutting off most U.S. aid. The United States has imposed several rounds of sanctions since, detailed in this CRS report [PDF]. As President Barack Obama called for Assad's resignation in August 2011, he signed Executive Order 13582 [PDF], which froze all assets of the Syrian government, prohibited U.S. persons from doing business with the regime, and banned imports of Syrian petroleum products. Washington closed its embassy in Damascus and withdrew Ambassador Ford in February 2012 amid an escalating assault on Homs.

In June 2013, Kerry announced a partial waiver of sanctions to allow the export of commodities and civilian technologies--including equipment for agriculture, infrastructure, and oil production--to rebel-controlled areas.

What are the European Union sanctions on Syria?

The European Union has passed numerous rounds of sanctions on the Assad regime since the March 2011 uprising. Sanctions [PDF] include asset freeze, travel bans, embargoes on equipment that might be used for "internal repression" or communications surveillance, and restrictions on importing Syrian oil and exporting oil-production equipment.

The EU eased restrictions in April 2013, allowing the import of Syrian crude oil from opposition forces in order to bolster their finances. The following month, it relaxed financial restrictions, to assist rebel forces and establish economic ties with civilians in rebel-controlled areas.

Under UK and French pressure, significant parts of the arms embargo, which had been in place since May 2011, were allowed to expire in June 2013.

In July 2013, the European Union designated Hezbollah's armed wing a terrorist organization, due in part to the Lebanese militant group's tactical support to the Syrian regime.

How weak is the Syrian economy?

"The Syrian economy is in total disarray," the Atlantic Council's Mohsin Khan and Faysal Itani wrote in June 2013. Western bans on oil imports, a significant source of hard currency and state revenue, have exacted a heavy toll, exacerbating the harm done to Syrian industry by the protracted civil war. Khan and Faysal estimate that real GDP fell between 50 and 80 percent in 2012.

Meanwhile, hyperinflation is rampant, as the Syria pound has dropped to one-sixth its prewar value, and foreign currency reserves are estimated to be between $2 and $5 billion, down from $18 billion. The regime now relies on credit lines extended by its few remaining allies: Iran, Russia, and China. As many Syrians have turned to the dollar for stability, Assad announced harsh punishments for traders who price goods in foreign currency.

How have China and Russia responded to the Syrian unrest?

Both Russia and China have significant economic and military relations with Syria. As permanent members of the UN Security Council, the duo has vetoed three resolutions designed to isolate the Assad regime. Analysts say the diplomatic opposition stems from concerns of a Western-backed military intervention similar to those in Libya and the Ivory Coast. Russia says it remains committed to the Geneva process, but continues to provide the regime military support.

In September 2013, Moscow suggested that potential U.S. strikes on Syria might be prevented if the Assad regime surrendered its chemical weapons in short order. An emerging plan from the Russian government tentatively proposes that international monitors take over and destroy the regime's chemical weapons stocks, a development that has offered a modicum of hope for a diplomatic breakthrough on Syria's crisis. However, many military analysts and U.S. officials remain skeptical of such a plan, citing logistical challenges and compliance concerns.

What are the regional implications?

Many analysts are concerned that the conflict in Syria is a brewing proxy war, with a loosely knit Sunni coalition—including the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaeda and other Islamist groups; Gulf states; and Turkey—challenging a Shia axis comprising Syrian Alawites, Hezbollah, Iraq, and Iran.

Meanwhile, Syria's Kurdish minority has fought regime forces, some advocating for an autonomous region. Massoud Barzani, the president of the semiautonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, has threatened intervention in Syria to protect Kurds against Islamist antigovernment militias.

Iran, a longtime Syrian ally, maintains close ties to the regime in Damascus, providing Assad with both military and economic assistance. Washington claimed the Iranian Basij militia has helped train the Syrian Shabiha, the militia implicated in the May 2012 Houla massacre. Adding to the political complexity is Hezbollah's active role in fighting. Israel, concerned that Assad's weapons stocks might come into Hezbollah's possession, has conducted four air strikes against Syria in 2013.

The Assad regime's tenuous grasp on arms depots has fostered international concern that chemical weapons could come under the control of al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, or other nonstate actors. In early 2013, the regime and opposition forces accused each other of using sarin gas. And in August, Western nations including the United States claimed Assad used nerve gas on rebels in a Damascus suburb, reportedly killing more than 1,400. Syria denies these accusations, and a UN team dispatched to Syria is investigating, but not expected to assign blame if the attack is confirmed.

The steady outpour of refugees—nearing two million, as of August 2013—has the potential to destabilize Syria's neighbors. Jordan in particular is feeling the strain of half a million refugees, adding to the mounting domestic instability challenging the Hashemite Kingdom. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimates a funding gap of nearly $1.9 billion.

What is U.S policy in Syria?

U.S. policy aims to achieve a negotiated settlement to the conflict out of concern that a deepening humanitarian crisis will destabilize the region and al-Qaeda might find safe haven in Syria's security vacuum. The Obama administration called for Assad to step aside in August 2011, but initially avoided providing opposition fighters with training and lethal aid, concerned that arms could fall into the grasp of jihadist groups.

In February 2013, the United States announced it would provide nonlethal aid—namely, food and medical kits—to the opposition. In June, the White House reported with "high confidence" that Assad used chemical weapons last year against rebel fighters, and authorized the CIA to provide small arms and ammunition to vetted rebel groups. However, delivery was delayed amid concerns from some lawmakers.

Meanwhile, some in Congress argued for more forceful intervention to balance the playing field, in which regime forces have benefited from Hezbollah and Iran's robust support. They also suggested that a military presence will position the United States to empower moderates at the expense of extremists.

Outlining options for the use of U.S. military force, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin E. Dempsey reported to Congress in July 2013 that even limited interventions, such as the establishment of no-fly zones or buffer zones, or limited strikes on Syrian military assets, could cost billions, would not ensure civilian safety, and could quickly lead to unintended escalation. "Deeper involvement is hard to avoid," he warned.

Concerns associated with a potential U.S. military intervention surfaced anew in August, after Washington cited evidence that "strongly indicates" that Syria used chemical weapons on its own people. In response, the Obama administration drew up contingency plans for limited, punitive strikes that would degrade the regime's ability to use chemical weapons, and "make clear to the world that we will not tolerate their use."

The White House deferred to Congress for authorization on the use of U.S. military force, which surprised many Washington observers, but subsequently requested that lawmakers delay deliberations until the administration can address Moscow's tentative proposal to neutralize the Assad regime's chemical weapons.

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