Updated: Your Cheat Sheet to the Syrian Conflict
PBS NewsHour will live stream statements and hearings on Syria as they become available. Watch the player above for the latest. And at 6 p.m. EDT every weekday, this player will stream the NewsHour broadcast.
President Barack Obama’s request to Congress for limited military strikes against Syria left many Americans with one basic question: What exactly is happening with Syria? If you’ve been tuned out until now, here’s a summary of the situation in 22 bullet points.
Syria is a nation of about 21 million people — roughly 2 million more than the population of New York state. It sits on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea in the Middle East.
The nation is about the same size as Washington state and slightly larger than North Dakota.
Syria is run by the minority sect known as Alawites, which make up 11.8 percent of the population.
- Major cities:
- Aleppo 2.985 million (slightly smaller than San Diego metro area)
- Damascus (capital) 2.527 million (slightly smaller than Denver metro area)
- Homs 1.276 million (slightly larger than Oklahoma City metro area)
- Hamah 854,000 (2009) (slightly smaller than New Haven, Conn. metro area)
What’s It Like There?
Before the civil war, Syria’s economy was diverse, including agriculture (22 percent of the economy), industry and excavation (25 percent), retail (23 percent) and tourism (12 percent).
But two years of war have quintupled unemployment, reduced the Syrian currency to one-sixth of its prewar value, cost the public sector $15 billion in losses and damage to public buildings, slashed personal savings and shrunk the economy 35 percent, according to the New York Times.
- “More than 50 percent of the Syrian health care system’s infrastructure has been destroyed,” one man told Der Spiegel. The German news agency also reported that “of the 75 state-run hospitals, just 30 remain in operation. In the embattled city of Homs, just one of 20 hospitals remains open. The Al-Kindi Hospital in Aleppo, once the largest and most modern medical facility in the country, is now a pile of ash.”
Why the Civil War?
A series of peaceful protests during the Arab Spring in 2011 triggered an increasingly violent backlash from the government of Bashar al-Assad that in turn led to a full-fledged civil war.
The current death toll, according to UNHCR’s Peter Kessler, now stands at more than 100,000 people. The number of people who have lost their homes or been forced to flee has reached 6.2 million.
- The group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says 40,146 civilians have been killed, including more than 4,000 women and more than 5,800 children.
Why the Sudden Heightened Tensions?
A preliminary U.S. government assessment has determined that the Syrian government killed 1,429 people in a chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs on Aug. 21, including at least 426 children.
- Three days after the attack, the nonprofit Doctors Without Borders reported that three hospitals it supports in Damascus treated about 3,600 patients with “neurotoxic symptoms” the day of the attack.
The Syrian Exodus
The countries surrounding Syria have taken in two million refugees since the conflict began more than two and a half years ago, but governments and humanitarian agencies struggle to keep up with the massive influx. Over 500,000 have fled to Jordan. Friday’s report focuses on the challenges and hardships Jordan now faces.
Syria is now the world’s second-largest producer of refugees, after Afghanistan.
So many Syrians have fled to the refugee camp Zaatari in Jordan that the camp is now the country’s fourth most-populous city. Zaatari is the second-largest refugee camp in the world, following Kenya’s Dadaab camp, which houses 400,000 refugees, mostly from Somalia’s civil war. In the last two years, Jordan’s population has increased 8 percent due to Syrian refugees.
- According to the U.N. agency on refugees, women and children make up 75 percent of the refugees.
“Syria has become the great tragedy of this century, a disgraceful humanitarian calamity with suffering and displacement unparalleled in recent history. The only solace is the humanity shown by the neighboring countries in welcoming and saving the lives of so many refugees.” — António Guterres, the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees
- Another 4.25 million Syrians are internally displaced.
What’s the World Going to Do?
President Obama on Aug. 31 called the chemical attack “an assault on human dignity” that “presents a serious danger to our national security. It risks making a mockery of the global prohibition on the use of chemical weapons.”
Though Mr. Obama said he had the authority to order a limited strike on Syria to punish the Assad regime, he decided to seek approval from Congress. “I know the country will be stronger if we take this course, and our actions will be even more effective,” he said.
United Nations backing for the strike is unlikely due to gridlock in the Security Council, especially from Syria’s allies, Russia and China.
At the moment, only France and the Arab League openly support action against Syria. British Prime Minister David Cameron’s motion to take military action lost in the parliament by a vote of only 285 to 272.
- As President Obama tries to convince Congress to act, five U.S. destroyers equipped with Tomahawk cruise missiles are positioned in the Mediterranean Sea, poised and ready to strike.
View all of our Syria coverage in the above YouTube playlist.
This post was updated on Sept. 4 to reflect a new version of the ethic groups pie chart.
this post was updated on Sept. 6 to reflect the refugee crisis.
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