What is the status of the situation in Syria?
Syria's civil war continued unabated in early 2013 amid an international deadlock on how to mediate the conflict that has killed more than seventy thousand people and displaced millions more. Global concerns have mounted over allegations that both the Syrian regime and rebel fighters have used chemical weapons, but these incidents remain unconfirmed. President Obama has said the use of such weapons would represent a "game-changer" for U.S. involvement in the civil war, and many policymakers have called for the United States and its allies to take more assertive action if Syrian forces crossed this "red line." The Syrian unrest has proved a magnet for militant Islamist groups, including al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra and Iran-backed Hezbollah. Reported Israeli airstrikes on Hezbollah targets inside Syria in early 2013 once again stoked fears of a wider conflagration that could embroil the region.
What is the Syrian opposition movement?
The Syrian resistance remains highly fractured both politically and militarily. However, in November 2012, several opposition factions came together to form an umbrella group known as the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. The alliance, formed following months of division among competing groups, opened the door to greater foreign financing and military aid.
The group, which replaced the troubled Syrian National Council, is committed to several principles, according to its website, including national sovereignty and independence, unity of country and people, ousting the Assad regime, and civil and democratic society.
Sheikh Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib, a moderate Islamist cleric and prominent national figure within Syria, was elected as the coalition's president, although he announced his resignation in April 2013, expressing frustration with what he said was lack of international support for the resistance. George Sabra subsequently assumed provisional leadership of the group.
The coalition has been recognized by more than 100 nations, including most world powers, with the exception of Russia and China. The coalition took the Assad regime's seat at the Arab League summit in Dubai and opened its first embassy in Qatar in March 2013. Washington hopes the opposition alliance will serve as a legitimate counterweight to a rising tide of jihadist insurgents fighting in Syria, including Jabhat al-Nusra, a Sunni Islamist group tied to al-Qaeda in Iraq.
The Free Syrian Army was formed in August 2011 from a group of army defectors intent on violently deposing Assad. The FSA, which underwent a major restructuring in December 2012, serves as the primary armed Syrian opposition force during the civil war. That month, rebel groups selected Brigadier General Selim Idris to replace Col. Riad al-Assad as top commander, and Idris has pledged to regroup the 100,000-plus rebel fighters from disparate groups into a unified force. Analysts say FSA's command is dominated by Islamists, many with links to the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist groups--a makeup that largely mirrors that of the new civilian opposition leadership.
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. Since he began, Brahimi has pressed an international plan agreed to in Geneva last year, which calls for a cease-fire, the formation of a transitional government with "full executive powers," and elections. The so-called Geneva plan has the support of Western nations, including the United States, as well as both Russia and China, which have stood by Assad. But analysts say that neither the Syrian government nor the opposition is interested in the proposal, with rebels unwilling to consider a plan that does not include Assad's departure, and Assad unwilling to go voluntarily.
In January 2013, Brahimi pleaded with the international community to use the Geneva principles as a basis for action at the UN Security Council. The sticking point in such talks remains the role of Assad in any transition. Washington has called for Assad to step down immediately, while Moscow has said such demands would preclude progress in peace negotiations.
What has been the policy of Arab and Muslim governments?
The Arab League suspended Syrian membership and imposed economic sanctions on Damascus in November 2011, unprecedented moves by the twenty-two-nation bloc. It also brokered an ill-fated peace agreement--a precursor to the Annan plan--with the Assad regime that called for ending violence against protestors and negotiations with opposition groups.
In January 2012, the League officially called for Assad to step down and requested a resolution from the UN Security Council in support. However, the proposal was vetoed by Russia and China. In March 2013, the League formally invited the Syrian opposition to take the Assad government's seat at its Dubai summit.
Turkey broke with Damascus after the government crackdown intensified, and has led calls for Assad to step down. Ankara has also permitted Syrian refugees and opposition forces to reside within its borders. Bilateral relations reached a boiling point in October 2012 when Turkey shelled Syrian targets after a series of cross-border mortar attacks.
Along with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have provided the Syrian opposition with small arms, but have mostly refrained from supplying heavy weaponry, such as shoulder-fired rockets. U.S. officials have cautioned against providing such arms, saying they may end up in the hands of jihadists. Analysts say there is evidence of private fundraising across the Gulf region aimed at providing rebels with heavy arms.
What are the U.S. sanctions on Syria?
The United States has placed sanctions on Syria that prohibit aid and restrict bilateral trade. This report (PDF) from the Congressional Research Service discusses the host of U.S. sanctions in much greater detail, but major provisions include:
State Sponsor of Terrorism Designation (1979)
This classification automatically subjects it to several general sanctions, including restrictions on foreign aid (which it hasn't received since 1981); a ban on defense exports; controls dual use exports; and other miscellaneous restrictions.
Syria Accountability Act (2004)
This banned all exports to Syria except food or medicine; prohibited U.S. businesses from operating in Syria; banned the flight of Syrian aircraft in the U.S.; reduced diplomatic ties; imposed travel bans on Syrian diplomats; and froze foreign transactions on Syria property.
USA PATRIOT Act
A ruling implemented by the Bush administration under the Patriot Act in 2006 bans U.S. banks and their overseas subsidiaries from doing business with the Commercial Bank of Syria.
Subsequent Executive Orders under Presidents Bush and Obama have also targeted Syrian individuals and entities. Notable measures in response to the 2011-2012 crisis include Executive Orders 13572 and 13573, which froze the U.S property of several high-ranking Syrian and Iranian officials, including President Assad. More broadly, Executive Order 13582 froze all U.S. assets of the Syrian government, prohibited U.S. persons from doing business with the Assad regime, and banned U.S. imports of Syrian petroleum products.
Additionally, Washington officially closed its embassy in Damascus and withdrew Ambassador Robert Ford on February 6, 2012, amid an escalating assault by Syrian security forces on the city of Homs. The U.S. government ordered the expulsion of Syria's charge d'affaires from Washington in May 2012, following the killing of more than 100 civilians, mostly women and children, by regime forces in the Houla region.
What are the European Union sanctions on Syria?
The European Union has passed more than a dozen rounds of sanctions on the Assad regime since the March 2011 uprising. This list from Reuters AlertNet provides more comprehensive details of the EU measures. Significant sanctions include:
- Asset freezes and travel bans imposed on top members of the Syrian military and government, including Assad and his family
- Establishment of an arms embargo
- Sanction on the Syrian central bank
- Bans on the import of Syrian oil and the export of equipment for the petro industry
The EU eased restrictions on Syrian oil in April 2013, allowing the import of crude from opposition forces to bolster their finances.
What has been the effect of sanctions?
Western bans on the import of Syrian oil, the mainstay of its economy, have exacted a heavy toll, according to reports. Sanctions and the pullout of foreign energy companies have decreased oil-sector production by nearly half, according to the Damascus-based Syria Center for Policy Research. By the end of 2012, the total economic cost of the protracted crisis was pegged at $48.4 billion, more than 80 percent of GDP.
The Syrian economy has averted collapse by relying on the aid of friendly nations, including Russia, Iraq, and Iran, according to Samer Abboud at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The sanctions that have hit Syria the hardest, he says, "are those imposed by the League of Arab States and the European Union. Their sanctions mainly target sources of government revenue by prohibiting transactions with individuals, companies, and state-owned institutions tied to the regime."
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 countries have vetoed three Western-backed resolutions aimed at isolating the Assad regime--the most recent in July 2012. Analysts say the diplomatic opposition stems from fears of another Western-backed military intervention similar to those in Libya and the Ivory Coast.
In early July 2012, Russia endorsed a Syria "Action Group" plan (PDF) that called for a transitional government in Damascus, but Moscow was keen to have the proposal omit any explicit demands for Assad to leave power. Russia has since reemphasized that it will not back a UN proposal that would include sanctions as a solution to the Syrian political crisis.
After a Moscow meeting in early May 2013, top U.S. and Russian officials called for an international peace conference in the near future aimed at persuading regime and opposition officials to accept the Geneva plan for a negotiated end to the war.
What are the regional implications?
An unraveling of the crisis in Syria could bring significant repercussions for the region. One concern is of a brewing proxy war in which Sunni states like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the Persian Gulf countries line up in support of the Syrian resistance, and Shiite-majority nations such as Iran and Iraq seek to bolster Assad's hold on power. Iran, a longtime Syrian ally, continues to have close links to the regime in Damascus. Tehran has provided Assad with both military and much-needed economic assistance, including helping the regime circumvent Western sanctions on oil exports, U.S. and European officials say. In May 2012, Washington claimed the Iranian Basij militia has helped train the Syrian Shabiha, the militia implicated in the Houla massacre.
Adding to the political complexity is the Lebanese-based militant group Hezbollah, long supported by Iran. Hezbollah has warned that foreign intervention could stir a wider conflict in the region, particularly against the state of Israel. In January and May 2013, Israeli warplanes reportedly struck at targets inside Syria suspected of storing advanced weaponry, including anti-aircraft missiles, destined for Hezbollah.
Other possible regional consequences of the spiraling chaos in Syria include increasing refugee flows, wider sectarian conflict, non-state transnational violence, as well as the liberation and export of Syria's large stockpiles of conventional and chemical weapons.
What are the policy options?
Russian and Chinese resistance to international action at the UN has led to speculation as to whether a unilateral actor or coalition of nations will intervene in Syria. In past months, NATO has said categorically that it will not contribute to a military intervention in Syria, nor will it provide assets to deliver humanitarian or medical assistance. NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in February 2012, "Syria is ethnically, politically, religiously much more complicated than Libya."
Many U.S. policymakers and allies have called for more decisive action from the Obama administration in response to increasing international suspicions that Assad forces used chemical weapons, although a UN-led investigation remains incomplete.
"To have drawn a red line and then fail to act could be seen as undermining U.S. credibility, with implications that extend well beyond Syria--such as whether Iran's leadership will take seriously the claims that the U.S. is not bluffing when it says that it won't permit Iran to acquire nuclear weapons," says USIP's Steven Heydemann.
As of May 2013, the White House says it is waiting for more definitive proof of the alleged chemical attacks before reacting, although various intervention alternatives are reportedly in development. Current U.S. policy toward Syria remains focused on ratcheting up diplomatic and economic pressure on the Assad regime, as well as providing nonlethal and humanitarian aid to opposition forces.
Experts and analysts have offered several military options, including deploying ground troops, the use of air power, no-fly zones, and training and logistical support for the rebels. While President Obama rejected a 2012 plan to arm vetted Syrian rebel fighters, the White House is reconsidering this option in the wake of potential chemical weapons use by Assad forces.