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Syria Explained for Teens

This issue remains one of the most important international topics today, and thus warrants all of our immediate attention. Yet many Americans, especially teens my own age, don't really know what exactly is happening in Syria.
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A little a while ago, Vogue published an article entitled "A Rose in the Desert" profiling Syria's glamorous first-lady, Asma Al-Assad. Writer Joan Juliet Buck fawned over Asma's "energetic grace," "chic" style, and mission of "active citizenship." Sure, this profile was all well and good until, of course, her husband Bashar Al-Assad very unfashionably murdered over 100,000 Syrian civilians in one of the most brutal civil wars in history. Syria is a humanitarian crisis where there seems to be no easy answer, and threatens to destabilize the entire region. This problem seems out of reach for even Asma Al-Assad. The United States and the West has tried to contain the chaos, but violence is still continuing. This issue remains one of the most important international topics today, and thus warrants all of our immediate attention. Yet many Americans, especially teens my own age, don't really know what exactly is happening in Syria and why it is so impossible for the West to do anything about it. Hopefully, this briefing should help to enlighten the Syrian enigma.

In December 2010, a protester in the small African country of Tunisia lit himself on fire to protest the country's inequality. The death of this protester, Mohamed Bouazizi, brought attention to Tunisia's horrible economic and social conditions, and sparked a complete revolution within the country. Problems such as religious/cultural repression, extreme poverty, and lack of freedom did not only exist in Tunisia, but across the entire Arab world and Middle East. When Tunisian rebels overthrew their dictatorial government, they struck a chord across many poor, oppressed citizens across the region. A chain of rebellions in countries such as Libya, Egypt, Bahrain, and Yemen eventually climaxed with Syria's revolution. Syria's leader, Bashar Al-Assad, had powerful allies in Russia and Iran and a particularly well-equipped army. The rebels could not overpower Assad, and thus the country was thrown into a violent stalemate. Currently, both sides are losing dozens of soldiers per day, and yet neither side has really gained an upper-hand. So why is the West not getting involved like when they set up a no-fly zone in Libya a year ago? To explain, first, we'll look at the particular rebel groups in Syria.

There's a reason that the rebels haven't beaten Assad yet. The Syrian rebels have been notoriously hectic and disorganized, and in some cases, borderline extremist. There are hundreds of small rebel groups in Syria, most of them working independently for their own motives. Some want freedom. Some want to secede from the government. Some want to spread their religion. It has been very difficult for the West to pick up on the exact intentions of the rebels, and are thus very wary to support a group it doesn't know. Not to mention that with such a disorganized structure, it is unlikely that the rebels would even win the war, with Western support. The West is also worried about the extremist rebel groups that have been tied to Al-Qaeda. These groups, which are known to have some sway with the rebels, would only cause more disarray if in power. As expected, the West doesn't want to be giving its money to such groups. Furthermore, in Syria, tensions run deep between the different religions and sects. Unfortunately, the war within the country has been drawn along religious lines. Sunni Muslims and Kurds have sided with the rebels, and the Shi'ite Muslims and Alawites have sided with Assad. This has made it particularly difficult for the West to get involved without seeming like it is favoring one or two religions over the others. Many Western countries also are especially afraid of getting involved with conflicts involving Islam. So while the rebels have been oppressed and seem to be the victims in this crisis, they do have their dark side.

Syria's powerful allies have also made the crisis even more complicated. Russia's seat on the United Nations Security Council means that it can veto any UN measure involving Syrian intervention or aid. President Vladimir Putin has completely stalled any resolution within the UN involving the Syrian crisis. Europe depends on Russia for gas and the United States aren't looking for another Cold War scenario between the two countries. Iran has also been supplying Assad with weapons and funding. Some pro-war advocates believe in intimidating Iran and its dangerous nuclear program by showing the brutal military force of a Western intervention in Syria. Syria's former ally Turkey, on the other hand, has turned against Assad. Turkey and countries such as Lebanon and Iraq are upset with Assad because his war has pushed millions of refugees into their borders. Israel has tried to remain neutral in the conflict but is not afraid to protect itself, such as in May, when it bombed a military complex it believed to be a threat several months ago. As is typical with Middle Eastern conflicts, the crisis extends beyond the country and affects all of the other countries in the region.

Finally, we can look at the recent U.S.-Russian agreement on chemical weapons. Chemical weapons, because of their immense power and tendency to kill civilian bystanders is a real sticking point for the West. Obama has stated that chemical weapons are a "red line" for American intervention and after, several weeks ago, chemical weapons were confirmed to have been used in Syria, it seemed like America had no choice but to go to war. But, with some shrewd diplomacy, Secretary of State John Kerry struck a deal with Russia: The United States will not intervene if Assad hands over the chemical weapons. Assad was quick to agree to the deal and now by mid-2014 Syria should be chemical-weapons-free. But just because chemical weapons are out of the country does not mean that the violence will end within the country, and in fact, the war could go on for many years to come.

The Syrian civil war is obviously incredibly complex and doesn't really have an easy answer or way out. Pro-interventionists can easily show off the gross human rights violations within the country and Iran's growing power in the Middle East. Anti-interventionists can easily rebutt by showing the radical and disorganized rebels or Russian opposition. Neither side is completely right. However, teens need to know about this crucial issue nonetheless. Not only would such a conflict likely drive up Middle Eastern oil prices for years to come (don't get too used to driving your parents' cars around), but an American-led intervention would mean that billions of taxpayers' dollars would be put into the war effort. Reminders of Iraq and Afghanistan go without saying. Thousands more soldiers and civilians could die in this war, a burden that Americans don't want on their shoulders. And a destabilized Middle East could mean disaster for U.S. allies such as Turkey and Israel. We have a lot riding on Syria eventually emerging from its war. Hopefully, we can make the right decision.