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Issue Guide: Syria's Escalating Crisis

Author: Jonathan Masters, Deputy Editor
Updated: August 27, 2012


Syria's seventeen-month-old political and humanitarian crisis has continued to deteriorate over the last several weeks, with heavy clashes between rebels and Syrian armed forces in the country's large cities. Mass graves discovered in August in Daraya (NYT), an opposition redoubt and suburb of Damascus, provide a gruesome testament to the growing carnage inflicted on the population. Hundreds of people, including women and children, have been killed in what activists describe as a "massacre" in the town over the past week.

As diplomatic progress has withered at the UN, the United States announced the establishment of a working group with Turkey that will support the opposition in Syria, provide humanitarian aid, and develop contingency planning. Some analysts suggest the West may be "inching" its way toward military intervention, speculation grounded in recent remarks by French officials calling for an "international coalition" to institute a limited no-fly zone in Syria (SMH). To date, more than 17,000 people are estimated to have been killed in the Syrian conflict, and 150,000 refugees have fled into neighboring countries. This CFR Issue Guide provides expert analysis and essential background on the Syrian unrest, its implications for the region, as well as policy considerations.

Inside the Assad Regime

Foreign Policy: Two Cheers for Syrian Islamists
"Any government" formed by Sunni Islamists, "whatever misfortunes [they] may visit on the Syrian poeple," would be preferable to the Assad regime, writes Gary Gambill.

CFR First Take: Al-Qaeda's Specter in Syria
Al-Qaeda may become the Free Syrian Army's most potent weapon against the Assad regime, but its collaboration with rebel forces poses serious risks for the country's future, says CFR's Ed Husain.

BBC News: Crisis Emboldens Syria's Kurds
Kurdish nationalists are exploiting the chaos in Syria to pursue their goal of an autonomous region in the country's north, writes Wyre Davies.

Economist: Syria's Rebels: Who Will Come Out on Top?
A wide array of rebel groups outside of the Free Syrian Army are cooperating against the Assad regime, but the harmony may not survive long, writes the Economist.

Financial Times: Bashar al-Assad: Behind the Mask
Roula Khalaf profiles Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, "the Arab world's most notorious dictator," his unexpected rise to power, and his inner circle of family and political allies.

Foreign Affairs: Alawites for Assad
Syria's Alawite minority, a sect of Shia Islam, has been fundamental to Assad's grip on power, writes Mideast researcher Leon Goldsmith. The privileged group accounts for the vast majority of Syria's security and intelligence apparatus, he says.

CFR Interview: The Great Syrian Divide
The government of Syria's brittle, one-party state remains dug in against a determined but fractured opposition. Expert Joshua Landis discusses the fault lines in the uprising.

TIME: The Wrath of the Shabiha
As the death toll mounts in Syria, attention falls on the shadowy paramilitary group now implicated in some of the country's worst massacres, writes Rania Abouzeid.

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: The Syrian Economy: Hanging by a Thread
International sanctions on Syria are weakening an already fragile Syrian economy, with the regime increasingly and unsustainably relying on Russia, Iraq, and Iran to stay afloat, writes Samer Abboud.

PBS Frontline: What's Known about Syria's 'Murky' Opposition
The New America Foundation's Randa Slim, who has interviewed the Syrian opposition groups both in country and in exile, says the resistance movement is more fragmented than ever.

Regional Dynamics

CFR Interview: Challenges for Syria's Neighbors
A post-Assad Syria will likely create distinct challenges for each of its neighbors, including creating a major loss for Iran, says Michael Young of Lebanon's Daily Star.

National Interest: Turkey's Syria Conundrum
Ankara has been a vanguard in pushing for regime change in Syria, but the costs of this policy, including a Kurdish uprising in the country's south, are becoming increasingly apparent, writes Sinan Ulgen.

Foreign Policy: The Winners and Losers of Syria's Civil War
Aaron David Miller offers up a "preliminary scorecard" for the potential winners and losers in a post-Assad Syria—the later much easier to identify, he notes.

Financial Times:Assad's Fall Presents Turkey with another Dilemma
A post-Assad Syria will likely inflame a festering Kurdish insurgency in Turkey's southeast, writes David Gardner. Ankara is worried that an emergent Kurdish state in northern Syria could try break off Turkish territory as well.

Foreign Affairs: How Iran Keeps Assad in Power in Syria
Iran sees the Syrian government as the front line of defense against the United States and Israel, writes Geneive Abdo. So Tehran is sparing no expense to help its ally fend off popular protests, she says.

BBC News: Lebanon Sucked Into Syrian Crisis
If the violence in Syria sets off unrest in its neighbor to the west, Lebanon's "second city" Tripoli is likely to serve as ground zero, writes Jim Muir. Tensions between Tripoli's Sunni majority and small Alawite community have erupted into violence twice already this year.

New York Times: Palestinians in Syria Are Reluctantly Drawn Into Vortex of Uprising
The deteriorating situation in Syria is putting the country's half million Palestinian refugees and the Islamic militant group Hamas in a precarious position, write Rod Nordland and Dalal Mawad, having to choose between their benefactor Assad and the popular resistance.

CFR Analysis: Can Russia Shift on Syria?
Russia has the chance to provide leadership while maintaining its influence in Syria by pushing the generals Moscow helped train to oust Assad, argues Ed Husain in this New York Times debate.

USIP: The Gulf States and Syria
This brief from the U.S. Institute of Peace looks at the interests, connections, and dimensions of the Syrian unrest in the Arab Gulf states. Several experts say that although the conflict presents Gulf nations with an opportunity to oust an Iran-allied Assad regime, their power to do so is limited.

CNN: Syria's Conflict Stirs Up Old Rivalries in Lebanon
The bloody conflict in Syria has washed over into neighboring Lebanon, home of the Shiite militant group and Assad-ally Hezbollah, explains Nick Thompson.

Policy Options

Financial Times: My Departing Advice on How to Save Syria
The international community must unite and compromise, writes former UN/Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan, for a successful political transition in Syria.

CFR Media Call: The Crisis in Syria
Senior Fellows Robert Danin and Ed Husain discuss policy options on intervening and stabilizing the immediate period after Assad's fall for what they say has spiraled into a larger sectarian conflict.

Project Syndicate: Into Syria without Arms
CFR's Richard N. Haass recommends policy alternatives to an armed intervention or intervention with arms in Syria, including increased economic sanctions and a fundamental recasting of UN diplomatic efforts.

National Interest: Avoiding the Iraq Experience in Syria
The U.S. experience in Iraq indicates that a foreign military intervention in Syria would not have prevented the country's current bloodshed, writes Katherine Wilkens.

Foreign Affairs: Why Washington Didn't Intervene In Syria Last Time
Washington's current handling of Syria contrasts sharply with its actions in the past, writes former U.S. ambassador to Syria Richard W. Murphy. The United States said little about the 1982 Hama crackdown, he says, and there was no indication that Washington would intervene.

CFR Policy Innovation Memo: American Options in Syria
In this Center for Preventive Action Policy Innovation Memo, Elliott Abrams argues that the United States should work to bring down Bashar al-Assad by isolating his regime from Syria's Alawite and business communities.

CFR Analysis: Toppling Syria's Assad
The United States should provide logistical support, including intelligence and communication equipment, to the Syria rebels, writes Max Boot. Washington, with the help of its NATO allies, should also initiate a naval blockade off Syria's coast, he says.

Brookings Institution: Saving Syria: Assessing Options for Regime Change
Syria is trapped on a "crumbling precipice," and regardless of how it falls, the aftermath will mean significant risks for the United States and for the Syrian people, says this memo written by Mideast experts at Brookings.

Foreign Policy: No More Half Measures
A political solution in Syria cannot, and should not, permit Assad loyalists to retain power, writes Daniel Byman. A better option would be for Washington and its allies to throw their support behind the Syrian opposition more intently, he writes.

Harvard's Belfer Center: The Intervention Dilemma
Harvard University Professor Joseph S. Nye examines the question of military intervention in Syria and discusses comparable circumstances in history and the notion of "responsibility to protect."

Essential Documents

Syria: Humanitarian Bulletin
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs released this bulletin in August 2012 on Syria's deteriorating humanitarian situation.

Press Conference Announcing U.S.-Turkey Partnership
Secretary of State Clinton delivered these remarks following a meeting with Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu on August 11 in Istanbul.

Final Communiqué of International Action Group on Syria
This document issued by the eleven-member Action Group in Geneva in June 2012 calls for a transitional government in Syria and the implementation of the Annan Peace Plan.

Annan's Six-Point Peace Plan for Syria
Kofi Annan, former Joint Special Envoy for the United Nations and the League of Arab States, drew up this six-point peace plan for Syria. It was submitted to the UN in March 2012 and accepted by Damascus days later. However, it has not been honored.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights' Statement on Syria
The UN released this press release on February 13, 2012; it describes the statement made by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, regarding Syria. Statements by UN delegations follow her words.

Video Offerings

PBS Frontline: Syria Undercover
In this hour-long offering from PBS Frontline, reporter Ramita Navai goes undercover for a rare glimpse of the Syrian uprising from the inside.

Al-Jazeera: Inside Syria
This half-hour al-Jazeera video presented by Dareen Abughaida inquires how fast Syria can transition "from tipping point to breaking point."

New York Times: Watching Syria's War
This compilation of short primary source videos, edited by J. David Goodman, presents a forceful and often shocking glimpse of the broadening conflict in Syria.

Timeline of Events

Reuters: Timeline: Violence in Syria
Reuters tracks the main events in Syria's sixteen-month-old conflict.