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August 30th, 2012

Civil War in Syria Raises Questions About When to Intervene

Over the past year and a half the world has watched the events in Syria transition from civil unrest to violent conflict to all-out civil war. This has led to a humanitarian crisis that has displaced hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians. With the war raging on and the death toll nearing 20,000, the international community is trying to assist refugees, monitor the fighting, and hold responsible parties accountable for the death and destruction.

The continuing violence in Syria has led many to choose to flee their homes for refugee camps in bordering countries, like this one in Mafraq, Jordan. These camps are only a temporary solution for refugees, but the international community is unsure of what to do next.

The continuing violence in Syria has led many to choose to flee their homes for refugee camps in bordering countries, like this one in Mafraq, Jordan. These camps are only a temporary solution for refugees, but the international community is unsure of what to do next.

The intensity of the fighting that has accompanied the Syrian civil war is making it dangerous for many civilians to remain in their homes. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that over 200,000 people have fled their homes for calmer parts of Syria or neighboring countries such as Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.

While these countries accept refugees, they have limited resources to care for another population. The United Nation estimates that as many as 2.5 million people have been affected by the crisis, many of them in need of food, medicine and shelter.

Temporary camps built to house large numbers of refugees are only a short-term solution, as refugees often cannot obtain legal rights in their new host country. These countries must perform a balancing act as they try to assist the flood of needy people while not putting a strain on their own citizens and resources.

Who is involved?

The fighting in Syria is primarily between the military loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and anti-regime protest fighters. However, in an attempt to justify his brutal crackdown, Assad has blamed foreign actors and terrorists for the initial uprising and continued violence.

A portrait of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad burns during clashes between rebels and Syrian troops near Aleppo.

A portrait of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad burns during clashes between rebels and Syrian troops near Aleppo.

While some members of the government continue to support the regime, others, including many higher-ups, defected in protest of the violence.

The opposition is a patchwork of groups fighting to overthrow Assad and establish a democracy in his place. The opposition includes the Free Syrian Army, the Syrian Liberation Army and fighters from across the region. Terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda have even joined the fight, worrying outside observers.

Should the U.S. intervene?

At U.N. headquarters in New York City, diplomats are debating what can be done to help the Syrians caught in the crossfire. Previous attempts to negotiate a peace agreement did not work.

While the U.S. and its allies support the anti-regime groups, they have said they will not intervene militarily unless Assad uses chemical weapons. International military support of the rebels in Libya last year was credited with helping bring down dictator Moammar Gadhafi, but each conflict is different and there are worries that deep religious and ethnic divisions in Syria, as well as Assad’s close ties to Iran, could erupt into an even more dangerous situation.

“A lot of people are trying to figure out what could be an effective intervention that wouldn’t cause more death and suffering,” said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in May. “We are thinking about all of this. There’s all kinds of both civilian and humanitarian and military planning going on but the factors are just not there.”

Monitoring and tracking the fighting

The Free Syrian Army consists of mostly untrained men armed with AK-47s, rocket launchers and homemade bombs, while the government and Assad supporters have access to warplanes, tanks and other advanced weaponry. The regime also claims to have stores of chemical and biological weapons that they say would only be used against foreign invasions, not its own people.

The bulk of the fighting is taking place in and around Aleppo, one of Syria’s largest cities. Only a few of its 200,000 citizens remain amid constant bombings and sniper fire. Both rebel fighters and government troops have occupied the Syrian capital of Damascus this summer, and major civilian massacres have been reported is the towns of Homs, Houla and Darayya.

To track violations of international human rights law, Amnesty International USA is using satellite images to see the real impact of shelling, road blocks and other destruction throughout the country. These pictures will make it easier to tell who is controlling which geographical areas, thereby facilitating the process of identifying war criminals once the fighting ceases.

– Compiled by Ja’anai Delaney for NewsHour Extra

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