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US considers Syria situation

President Barack Obama meets with his National Security Staff to discuss the situation in Syria in the Situation Room of the White House, Aug. 30, 2013. From left at the table: National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice; Attorney General Eric Holder; Secretary of State John Kerry; and Vice President Joe Biden. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama has announced his intent to take military action against Syria following reports that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad ordered the use of chemical weapons against his own people in late August, killing hundreds. Dr. Victoria Hightower, an assistant professor in the University of North Georgia's Department of History, Anthropology and Philosophy, explains how the crisis in Syria developed and factors the United States should consider in dealing with the situation.

What is the current situation in Syria?

There are four power blocs fighting one another: the al-Assad regime, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the Al-Qaeda Affiliated Rebel Groups (AQAs), and the Kurdish rebel groups. Civilians are caught in the middle. More than 100,000 people have died in this civil war and 700,000 have fled the country, most to Turkey or Jordan. It is estimated that between 2.5 and 4 million people are in need of medical and food aid either because they are internally displaced or are in contested cities.

How did the Syrian crisis develop?

This civil war developed out of protests in 2011 by Syrians in favor of greater political freedom and access to government services.

Syria has been ruled by the al-Assad family since 1970. Former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad (1971-2000), a member of the minority religious group called the Alawites, granted Alawites access to services and government jobs denied to the majority of Syrians, who are Sunni Muslim.

As the wave of protests swept the Middle East in 2011, fueled by decades of economic stagnation, rising unemployment among those younger than 30, rising education levels, and rising access to uncensored media, Syrians protested their government. The current ruler, Bashar al-Assad, reacted to this threat to his authority violently and decisively. Protestors responded to the government's use of force with violence and organized into rebel groups. 

What is the most likely action that will be taken by the U.S. right now?

The United States has carrier groups in the Persian Gulf and Mediterranean Sea capable of attacking Syria with cruise missiles. However, who should be hit and when remain difficult questions to answer.

If the civil war ended tomorrow, it is likely that either the Assad regime or the AQAs would win. Neither of these outcomes benefits U.S. security interests. This war reinforced Assad's ties with Russia and Iran, with whom America has strained relationships. Similarly, it is not in the United States' strategic interests for Syria to become a haven for al-Qaeda in the region. Until two weeks ago, the Obama administration was cautious about taking sides in the conflict.

However, on Aug. 21, 2013, chemical weapons were used on a large scale in the eastern Damascus suburbs of Ghouta. At least 400 died and more than 1,000 were affected. The United Nations sent in chemical weapons experts, and the U.S. would do well to await the contents of their report, especially as there is at least one semi-credible account that some of the chemical weapons were discharged accidentally by an AQA-affiliated group, rather than by the al-Assad government.

Given the lack of any coordination between the rebel groups, questions about the origin of the chemical weapons, and the general disarray in Syria, it is not necessarily in U.S. interests to get involved at this moment.

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