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Armed Conflict in Syria: U.S.

and International Response

The popular-uprising-turned-armed-rebellion in Syria has entered its third year, and seems poised to continue, with the government and a bewildering array of militias locked in a bloody struggle of attrition. U.S. officials and many analysts believe that Asad and his supporters will ultimately be forced from power, but few offer specific, credible timetables for a resolution to the crisis. Opposition forces are formidable, but forces loyal to President Bashar al Asad continue to resist, using air strikes, artillery, and pro-government militias in punishing counterattacks. U.S. officials believe that the capacity of government forces is eroding but also believe that fighting would likely continue even if opposition groups achieve their objective of toppling Asad. Some members of the Sunni Arab majority and of ethnic and sectarian minority groups view the conflict in communal, zero-sum terms. Many observers worry that a further escalation in fighting or swift regime change could jeopardize the security of chemical and conventional weapons stockpiles, threaten minority groups, or lead to wider civil or regional conflict. Amid extensive damage to major urban areas and reports attributing war crimes to government and opposition forces, the fighting has created a regional humanitarian emergency. Some estimates suggest more than 70,000 Syrians have been killed since unrest began in March 2011. As of April 22, more than 1,380,406 refugees had fled the country, more than 1.1 million of them since September 2012. According to the United Nations, as many as 3.6 million Syrians may be internally displaced. United Nations appeals for $1.5 billion for Syrians through June 2013 remain mostly underfunded, with U.N officials warning of a potential collapse of their ability to support the growing number of those displaced and in need. The United States has provided $409 million in humanitarian assistance to date. President Obama and his Administration have been calling for Asads resignation since August 2011, and have pressed the United Nations Security Council to condemn the Syrian government. The United States has recognized the National Coalition of Revolution and Opposition Forces (SOC) as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people and is providing nonlethal assistance to the Coalition and an affiliated Supreme Military Command Council (SMC). The Obama Administration believes that a negotiated political settlement is required and has prepared military plans to secure Syrias stockpiles of chemical weapons, if necessary. Members of Congress and Obama Administration officials are weighing these issues as they continue to debate U.S. policy. Some observers advocate for more robust nonlethal and lethal aid to the SOC and SMC as a means of forcing the Asad regime to the negotiating table. Opponents of this approach argue that making opposition groups more formidable could intensify the fighting and risks empowering extremists. Meanwhile, Asad refuses to step down and warns his supporters that victory is the only option. Some armed opposition factions, including powerful Islamist coalitions, reject negotiation outright and prefer a military solution to the conflict. After two years of unrest and violence, the central question for policy makers remains how best to bring the conflict in Syria to a close before the crisis consigns the region to one of several destructive and destabilizing scenarios. The human toll of the fighting, and the resulting political, ethnic, and sectarian polarization, all but guarantee that political, security, humanitarian, and economic challenges will outlast Asad and keep Syria on the U.S. agenda for years to come.

Congressional Research Service