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Cheatsheet: What you need to know about Syria.

By BERNADETTE ANVIA and JAMILA RIZVI

WARNING: This article deals with distressing content, and some readers may find the images upsetting.

The carnage in Syria continues.  Source: Twitter/Syrian Revolution.
The carnage in Syria continues.
Source: Twitter/Syrian Revolution.

(1) Why is Syria constantly in the news at the moment?

Reports came out of Syria a fortnight ago, that chemical weapons had been used by the Syrian Government on civilians. The attack, which was allegedly sanctioned by Syrian President al-Assad killed 1400 people, including hundreds of children.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said today that evidence shows that the chemical weapon used was sarin gas. Sarin is a horrific form of chemical weaponry that was first developed by the Nazis and was later used by Saddam Hussein in Iraq against the Kurdish population.

Sarin gas attacks the human nervous system, stopping nerves in muscles from working and causing the the body to asphyxiate because the person can no longer use their muscles to breathe. As a result, many of the distressing photos from Syria last week showed unmarked bodies, without a spot of blood or a visible wound on them.

If these reports are true then this action by the Syrian Government against its own people would be considered a crime against humanity under international law.

syrian chemical weapons
This screenshot of a Youtube video shows the bodies of small Syrian children, believed to have been killed by sarin gas.
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(2) Tony Abbott said it was a case of ‘baddies versus baddies’ – who is fighting who?

Over the past few years, there have been a series of civilian uprisings (rebellions from the people against their government) in the Middle East. The term loosely used to describe this turmoil and instability in the region was the ‘Arab Spring’.

These uprisings, which have taken place in countries including Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria have been prompted by people who are angry about restrictions of their civic liberties and a widening economic gap between the rich and poor.

Syria is currently in a state of civil war, which means that organised groups within the country are fighting each other. There are two rival forces: those who support President Bashar al-Assad’s government and those who desire the overthrow of that government (generally referred to as the rebels).

The main organisers of the anti-government group are the Free Syrian Army, who are soldiers who defected from the actual army and are now using force to protect the protestors who are fighting to remove Assad’s government.

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The bodies of children.

(3) Are the UN involved? What are they doing?

United Nations weapons inspectors were sent into Syria last week in order to determine the validity of the allegations presented against the al-Assad government. Under international law, the UN first needs to prove that chemical weapons have been used by a government against its own people before it can intervene.

If the United Nations is able to prove this, then the international community could decide to override the sovereignty of Syria and intervene to protect the people who are at risk of harm. This is called an International Responsibility to Protect (R2P).

UN weapons inspectors have now been flown out of Damascus in Syria and are convening at The Hague (UN Headquarters)  to discuss their findings with General Secretary of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon. If a humanitarian intervention is found to be legal and necessary for the upholding of human rights in Syria, than the United Nations will need to act quickly in order to prevent the possibility of further attacks.

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(4) Which other countries are talking about attacking Syria and why are they getting involved?

International condemnation of the use of chemical weapon have been led by several key nations and Syrian neighbours:

The United States of America: The US has accused President al-Assad of being guilty of using chemical weapons against his own people. President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have stressed that the instability in Syria represents a direct threat to America’s “national interest” in the form of continuing international instability.

President Obama has outlined that America’s intervention in America will be strictly undertaken by air strikes, and that there will be no chance of American boots on the ground. However, even such an intervention will require Congressional authority, something that President Obama cannot seek until the 9th of September, upon his return from the G20 meetings in St Petersburg.

United Kingdom: England too, believes al-Assad to have been complicit in the use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians. Despite the fact that Prime Minister David Cameron was supportive of a military intervention, the British Parliament voted against the UK’s involvement.

France: France has supported the US from the start, and has reiterated American accusations against the Assad regime. France has also agreed to undertake a military intervention alongside the US, whether or not it is sanctioned by the United Nations.

Australia: Whilst the Rudd government has condemned the use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians, Prime Minister Rudd has ruled out any military involvement in the event of a military intervention.

Germany: Although Germany has condemned actions in Syria, they have ruled out any involvement in any form of intervention and have emphasised that their aid has not and will not be sought out in the event of an intervention.

Turkey: As one of Syria’s neighbours, Turkey has lent its voice to Western condemnation of the al-Assad government and has outlined that they will lend their forces to an international coalition if an intervention takes place. Turkey is willing to join the coalition even if the UN does not sanction their intervention.

Saudi Arabia and the Gulf: Saudi Arabia is believed to be one of the biggest sponsors of the Syrian rebel groups, and has sought to be highly instrumental in the overthrowing of al-Assad. Saudi Arabia will seemingly be seeking further support for rebel forces, although it is not clear whether they plan on providing support in the form of soldiers.

Israel: During the course of this year, Israel has already undertaken three strikes against Syrian targets. However, the possibility of Israel being involved in an intervening military force has not been confirmed thus far, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu remaining ambiguous in his official statements on the Syrian situation.

Iran: Iran has also threatened military action, but not against the Syrian regime- rather, in support of the al-Assad regime. Iran has declared its staunch support for the government, and has declared that there will be “serious consequences” if an intervention is undertaken by the West.

(5) But don’t these countries need UN security council approval to intervene?

A UN force cannot intervene in Syria unless it is first approved in the UN Security Council by the five permanent members. which include Russia and China. China and Russia have both criticized the West’s prompt accusations against al-Assad, and have stressed the importance for evidence to prove that the government sanctioned the weapons attack.

The two nations have also emphasised that the answer to this crisis is not a military one, but rather a political solution- providing further credence to the belief that they will use their veto power in the Security Council. This means it’s unlikely the UN will be able to intervene, thus the United States and others are already considering action that is separate from the United Nations.

(6) Is Australia likely to send any troops? Will that mean we’re at war with Syria?

The last time Australia willingly entered into a non-UN sanctioned conflict was in Iraq as part of President Bush’s ‘Coalition of the willing,’ under the leadership of then Prime Minister John Howard.

Foreign Minister Bob Carr has ruled out Australia’s military involvement in Syria under a Labor government, although the Rudd government does support the idea of an intervention. Mr Carr has stated that, “our preference, everyone’s preference, would be for action, a response, under United Nations auspices. But if that’s not possible, the sheer horror of a government using chemical weapons against its people, using chemical weapons in any circumstances, mandates a response.”

However, with the Federal election only one week away, it may very well be Prime Minister Abbott making the final call on Australia’s involvement in Syria. Tony Abbott’s assessment of the situation in Syria has been limited today, he has commented however that conflicts in the Middle East are based on age-old political and religious tensions that are not easily ended. He described the situation as one of “baddies against baddies.”

(7) Australia takes over as chair of the UN security council soon. What will that mean for us?

As Australia moves into its new position as U.N Security Council non-permanent member, Australia will be in the position to consult with and provide advice to the other members of the Security Council (five permanent, and 10 rotating) regarding the best action to be taken in Syria.

Australia’s ambassador to the UN Security Council is Gary Quinlan. Nick O’Malley, from the Sydney Morning Herald writes that, “on paper he [Gary] will become a man of extraordinary influence, leading the executive of a body invested with the power to create coalitions of armed forces, even institute a standing army, to maintain peace and international security…”

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