Focus on: Syria crisis

Will Hodges reports on the crisis in Syria and the arguments for and against foreign intervention

More than two years have passed since the start of the Arab Spring uprising in December 2010, when unrest in a market stall in Tunisia led to a wave of popular protest across the Middle East. While a sense of relative normality has returned to most of the region, tensions remain high in a number of hot spots.

Syria was a relative latecomer to the Arab Spring movement, with the first reports of protests against the leadership of president Bashar Al-Assad and the Ba'athist government circulating in March 2011. Since then, the country has experienced the most violent and sustained period of conflict in the region.

Aside from a short-lived ceasefire in April 2012, much of the country has been caught up in a constant battle between government forces and opposition group, the Free Syrian Army. The scale of the conflict, which is estimated to have killed more than 60,000 soldiers and civilians on both sides, has led UN officials to classify it as a civil war.

In recent weeks the international spotlight on Syria has intensified, bringing with it talks of possible military intervention to aid opposition forces and end the conflict. Western governments, including the US, the UK and France, have so far limited their involvement to the provision of medical supplies and communications equipment to the Free Syrian Army. Meanwhile Arab leaders have condemned Assad's harsh treatment of protestors and civilians, and ousted Syria from the Arab League and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.

International support for Assad, on the other hand, has been far less forthcoming. Only Russia and Iran have publicly declared support for Assad, largely to demonstrate their own sovereignty and defy pressures from the UN and the international community.

With no sign of the conflict coming to a close, the arguments in favour of stepping up UN and Nato involvement are growing in strength. Condemnation of Assad's presidency has drawn attention to the Ba'athist government's poor record on human rights and its lack of press freedom. Relations between Syria and the west have been further soured by the Ba'athist government's support for anti-Israel militant groups, including Hamas and Hezbollah.

The implementation of trade sanctions against the country, similar to those employed against Iran, is the next logical step and is a move supported by the majority of the UN and Nato members. However, Russia and China have refused to back the decision. Russia, in particular, has remained steadfast in its support for Assad and has maintained that foreign governments should not be allowed to intervene in the conflict.

It's a view that may well be shared by many westerners themselves. The heavy casualties endured by US and UK troops in the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan mean public support for financing another expensive and bloody overseas war is likely to be limited.

Is it time for the UK to intervene militarily in Syria, or should involvement be limited to humanitarian aid?

*"Military intervention can be one of the most constructive forms of foreign aid. Humanitarian 'hand outs' will never provide a sustainable solution to any crisis, and without soldiers on the ground local corruption prevents aid reaching those in need."*Tom Bagchi - University of Sheffield

"*The west using force against the Assad regime would be the same as using force against Russia itself. The human suffering resulting from the fallout does not bear thinking about."*Charles Wei - University of Oxford

*"The UK should not intervene in Syria. It's got it wrong too many times. Just look at Iraq and Afghanistan. The country can't afford it anyway." *Nicoleta Richier - University of Exeter

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