Two years after the first protests roiled through the streets of Syria’s cities, what was once another potential victory for the Arab Spring has turned into a long slog of the hardship and chaos of civil war as President Bashar al-Assad clings to power.
At the outset of the pro-democracy protests in Syria, headlines announced the deaths of demonstrators at the hands of state security forces in the single digits. As time wore on, more and greater violence was unleashed against civilians, including the use of armored vehicles, fixed-wing aircraft and mortars against whole neighborhoods. The result can be seen in the conflict’s staggering numbers:
Beyond the loss of life, as early as June 2011, Human Rights Watch was reporting on the Syrian government’s widespread use of torture, extrajudicial executions and detention of medical patients. The conditions have only worsened over time, with Syria’s rebel groups now also partaking in atrocities, as chronicled by a U.N. panel. The International Committee of the Red Cross on Friday appealed to world powers to press all-sides to end the atrocities against civilians and aid workers.
As the conflict enters its third year, the current debate on Syria revolves around whether Western powers should join states in the Persian Gulf in arming Syria’s rebels directly. The rebels now hold a large swath of territory in the north and west of the country, but frequently complain of their inability to counter the heavy arms the government can access. France and the United Kingdom on Thursday announced that they are willing to circumvent a European Union arms embargo on Syria, against the wishes of Germany. The concern remains, however, that the arms provided could fall into the hands of the several jihadist groups that have also joined in the fighting in Syria.
The United States has thus far refrained from sending arms, but has not taken a hands-off approach to the crisis. instead opting to send non-lethal aid — in the form of food, body armor, radios and other equipment — and military training. Rep. Elliot Engel (D-CA), Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has introduced a bill in the House to arm the rebels after all. Elliot’s bill, however, falls short of the desire of Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and others in the Republican Party for the U.S. tomilitarily intervene directly in Syria.