The crisis in Syria

10th Sep 2013

  • The international community is currently divided on how to deal with the escalating violence in Syria, after reports that chemical weapons have been used against civilians.
  • At the end of August the UK government was narrowly defeated on a motion supporting the principle of joining military action against President Bashar Al-Assad.
  • The recent conflict in Syria began in March 2011. Since then violence between pro-Assad forces and various rebel groups has killed more than 100,000 people and led to more than 6 million people being displaced.

Number of deaths

Due to the difficulties in verifying the number of deaths, estimates of the number killed vary significantly. The UN's most recent assessment in July put the total number of deaths at over 100,000.

A previous UN report estimated the death toll as almost 93,000 up to the end of April 2013, but cautioned that this was "most likely a minimum casualty figure", with the true number killed "potentially much higher".

The UN identified more than 6,500 of those killed as children. Around 80% of victims have been male.

Number of refugees

The UNHCR, the UN's refugee agency, reported earlier this month that the number of Syrian refugees had topped 2 million, up from around 230,000 a year earlier.

That figure counted people who had registered as refugees or were awaiting registration, and only includes those who have left Syria, the vast majority of whom are now in neighbouring countries. Over half of those who have taken refuge abroad are children aged 17 years or under.

4.25 million people have been displaced inside Syria, according to the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA). This indicates a total of more than 6 million Syrians have been uprooted. 

UK aid donations

The Prime Minister has described the UK as the second largest aid donor to Syria and the wider region. The UK is the second largest donor of the 'Syria Humanitarian Assistance Response Plan', but this is just one channel of aid to Syria. Overall, the UK has committed the third largest sum of money among states and the second largest if uncommitted pledges are included as well.

Since this data was collected, the UK government has increased its contribution. The UK has now pledged more than £400 million in aid (some $630 million).

Use of chemical weapons

On 21 August 2013, reports emerged of an alleged chemical weapons attack on the outskirts of Damascus. The 1925 Geneva Protocol prohibits the use of chemical and biological warfare.

US Secretary of State John Kerry blamed the Syrian government for the attack, and said that almost 1,500 people had been killed, around a third of them children.

Russia's president Vladimir Putin publicly ridiculed the claim, but the French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault presented a report to France's parliament that stated that the use of chemical weapons "could not have been ordered and carried out by anyone but the Syrian government".

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad has repeatedly denied using chemical weapons

After this month's G20 meeting, Russia proposed that the international community take custody of Syria's chemical weapons stock. Syria appears to have accepted the offer and President Barack Obama has now postponed a Congress vote on US military action.

The Russian and US foreign ministers tonight met in Geneva to discuss how Syria's weapons might be placed under foreign control.

House of Commons vote

Following the suspected chemical attack, on 29 August David Cameron recalled Parliament for a motion on the principle of taking military action against Syria. The government was defeated by 285 votes to 272, as 30 Conservative and nine Lib Dem MPs voted against their parties.

The Prime Minister vowed to respect the will of the House of Commons, and gave an assurance that he would not use the Royal Prerogative (which would order the UK to take part in military action) without another vote in Parliament. 

Further reading:

House of Commons library standard note — Intervention in Syria (PDF)

UNHCR - Syria Regional Refugee Response data portal

Financial Tracking Service: Overview tables of Syrian humanitarian assistance, Syrian historical summary and outline of how Syrian funding arrangements work