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Explainer: What is going on in Syria?

All the questions you might have about the conflict in Syria – answered.

A city market in Damascus, where some continue to try and lead life as usual.
A city market in Damascus, where some continue to try and lead life as usual.
Image: Hassan Ammar/AP/Press Association Images

Warning: Contains some graphic images.

WHAT BEGAN AS an uprising in Syria during the Arab Spring in early 2011 has morphed into a complicated internal conflict, one of which many believe has now escalated to a full-blown civil war.

The struggles of Syrian citizens has bubbled below the international community’s radar now for 29 months but an alleged chemical attack on civilians, which opposition groups claim killed 1,300 people including many children, has shocked the world this week, catapulting the conflict back onto our television screens and the front pages of newspapers.

TheJournal.ie takes a look at what has been happening since March two years ago:

Where, exactly, is Syria?

Officially known as the Syrian Arab Republic, the country is situated in western Asia. It borders Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea to the West, Turkey to the north, Iraq to the east, Jordan to the south and Israel to the southwest. It has a population of over 22 million people.

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Who is in power?

The Assad family has ruled since 1970. Technically, it is the Ba’ath Party that has been in power but the leader for the past four decades has been an Assad.

When Hafez al-Assad died in 2000, his son Bashar Assad was elected President in an uncontested race. Many believed in him, particularly as he was educated in the UK and brought ‘Western ideals’ home, and hopes of reform birthed the Damascus Spring. That movement, however, was suppressed quite quickly and some of the organisers imprisoned.

Before Bashar, his father Hafez was a divisive character. On one hand, he was seen to want to improve women’s rights, champion secularism (which brought stability) and stabilise an economy, backed with industrialisation. But he was also a dictator with a poor record on human rights. When a rebellion was mounted in 1982 by the Muslim Brotherhood, his troops massacred up to 40,000 dissenters in Hama.

There was a State of Emergency declared in Syria for 48 years before it was lifted by Assad in April 2011 when he succumbed to pressure from protesters. All other reforms, however, were seen as superficial.

When and why did all this start?

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A Syrian military soldier holds his AK-47 with a sticker of Syrian President Bashar Assad and Arabic that reads, “Syria is fine,” as he stands guard at a check point on Baghdad street yesterday. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

The current conflict began in March 2011 in the city of Deraa, sparked by protests in neighbouring countries which fell under the umbrella term, the Arab Spring. Residents took to the streets to demand the release of political prisoners, including 15 schoolchildren who had been arrested for spraying anti-government graffiti.

Peaceful to begin with, demonstrators also called for urgent reforms, including democratic elections, a new Constitution and greater freedoms for the people of Syria.

The Syrian Army reacted with considerable force to quash the anti-government sentiment. They shot dead a number of people in the city and also fired during the following days funeral.

The unrest quickly spread to other parts of the country where citizens were shocked at the official reaction.

Who is the Opposition?

The Opposition isn’t as unified as it could be. There are hundreds of different factions, many with different ideologies and religions.

However, the scattered groups did manage to come together in November 2012 to form the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces. Most countries have now recognised the coalition as the representatives of the Syrian people.

The group’s third leader in less than six months, Ahmad Jarba, took over in July.

How many people have died?

Since the first blood was spilled more than two years ago, the United Nations estimates that more than 100,000 people have been killed. That figure, released last month, could be an underestimate though and the true death toll could be dramatically higher.

Many deaths are not reported and it is difficult to verify much of the information coming from the country.

Severe restrictions on media crews have been in place since the uprising began and it is now impossible for foreign journalists to gain access to most areas central to the conflict. As with all Arab Spring movements, social media has been used to report various atrocities and human rights violations with quite gruesome and violent videos and photographs appearing across YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.

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This image provided by Shaam News Network, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, purports to show the dead bodies of children after an attack on Ghouta, Syria on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network)

There have been many images of refugee camps…are civilians safe now?

No. The civilian death toll is huge. Of the country’s 22 million-strong population, about 1.91 million have fled. According to UN figures, 1.71 have registered as refugees while another 200,000 are waiting to register with the office of the UN High Commissioner.

Neighbouring countries Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan have all taken in citizens, setting up refugee camps along the borders. Three quarters of those who have left their homes are women and children.

Aid agencies believe there are another 4.25 million people displaced internally, meaning they have left their homes because of the escalating violence.

There are almost 7 million people labelled by those agencies as in need of “urgent assistance”.

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Syrian refugees stand in a queue to receive free food at Kawergost refugee camp in Irbil, 217 miles north of Baghdad yesterday. (Image: Hadi Mizban/AP/Press Association Images)

What do the rebels want?

Basically, the Opposition want Assad out of power but he is not willing to remove himself.

Whose side are we on?

Ireland and the European Union recognises the Opposition coalition as the representative of the Syrian people.

The lack of information about exactly what is happening in Syria makes this a difficult question though for the wider international community. The US has also recognised the SNC but most of the focus is now on the impact the conflict between the Free Syrian Army and security forces is having on citizens.

There are hundreds of various factions within the rebel camp and there has been criticism of some of their tactics, as well as those of the loyal Syrian Army. A significant number of rebels are thought to be Islamic extremists, a fact that instils some fear as other countries decide what the best course of action is. There have also been suggestions that terrorist group Al Qaeda could infiltrate the camp.

Currently, there seems to be a deadlock with a win for either side not looking imminent.

Whose side is the rest of the world on?

The UN has been divided on the Syrian question for too long now. International law requires a resolution to be taken through the UN Security Council but both China and Russia have used their veto powers against proposed mandates which would allow for strong action.

What they did allow through was a supervision mission but intensified armed action within Syria led to a withdrawal of the peace monitors last year. The mandate ended on 19 August 2012.

No armed troops have been sent into the country.

Russia, in particular, has strong ties to Assad. Although Moscow has been critical of some of his decisions, they have not yet acquiesced to UK and French calls for a greater response.

The US and the UK have both said they support the Opposition and would like to see Assad step aside. In June this year, a ban on sending weapons to the rebels was lifted by the European Union. However, no country has declared they are doing so yet.

Why don’t we hear more about it?

Unfortunately, commentators believe Syrians are in for a long and brutal war. The internal stalemate, coupled with the restricted (or non-existent) access to foreign journalist, keeps the images of war off our television screens and below the radar.

Why is everyone paying more attention now?

That has changed this week following claims that the Syrian government used chemical weapons against its own people in a suburb of the capital of Damascus. Opposition leaders say that about 1,300 died from the exposure to the toxic gas. Photos and videos have emerged from Syria in the past two days that have shocked the world, with many making the front pages of national newspapers.

The horror of the incident is hard to comprehend, with hundreds of lifeless children seen lined up in body bags. Earlier this week, activists posted the following video online, which shows a young girl who purportedly survived the attack. She is hysterical and seems to want to convince the health worker that she is alive. He says she is traumatised by the death of her parents:


(YouTube: ANAChannelEng)

Is there a sectarian element to the war?

It didn’t start that way but as with most wars, religion creeps in.

Assad is an Alawite, a minority group in Syria, and support from that 12 per cent has stayed strong. Much of the Christian community also backed the leader in the past, preferring his rule of an Islamist alternative.

Rifts have emerged within the Opposition and warnings that the country could be infiltrated by Islamist extremists has rendered the international powers cautious about helping the Free Syrian Army with weapons, despite its somewhat secular stance.

If the UK or France send arms, they fear they could land in the wrong arms.

Where does Russia come into all this?

Russia has always been an ally of Assad’s. Syria was the country’s top customer in terms of its international arms exports.

Although completely legal, Putin’s administration was criticised for continuing to send weapons to the government which could be used to suppress a rebellion.

In July 2012, Moscow vowed not to export arms while the conflict was ongoing. The Kremlin has since distanced itself from Assad and established an interest in ending the violence but Putin and US President Barack Obama have publicly stated that their positions on Syria do not coincide.

What can be done?

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A Syrian woman, who lives in Beirut, holds a candle and placard during a vigil against the alleged chemical weapons attack on the suburbs of Damascus, in front the United Nations headquarters in Lebanon. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

An impossible question. What will happen next? Nobody knows. Not even the Security Council of the UN.

There seems to be no appetite for sending in armed troops but the world is now watching children die in a horrific conflict with no end in sight. Parallels are starting to be drawn between Syria and the Srebrenica massacre in 1995, the bloodiest moment in European history since World War II.

Pressure is mounting for international powers to take action and not allow the slaughter of more innocent victims. The question is though, what form will that action take?

Ireland are sending troops there soon. What’s that about?

The UNDOF mission which Ireland is sending about 150 troops to is separate to the current conflict.

It was established by the UN’s Security Council in 1974 to maintain the ceasefire in the Golan Heights area following the conflict between Syria and Israel.

The Agreement provided for an area of separation and for two equal zones of limited forces and armaments on both sides of the area, and called for the establishment of a United Nations observer force to supervise its implementation.

The armed UN force has been depleted in recent weeks as Austria withdrew its personnel from the area on 5 July as violence associated with the internal conflict continued to escalate. It issued a request to Ireland to consider contributing to the force to bring the strength of the mission back up to the authorised level of 1,250.

The situation in the UNDOF area has been incredibly volatile over the past few months because of fighting between Syrian Arab Armed Forces and anti-government rebels.

Yesterday: Syrian forces bomb area of alleged chemical attack

Poll: Should images of young Syrian victims make the front pages?

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