Unless you’ve avoided watching TV, listening to the radio, reading newspapers and the internet for the last few years you’ve have probably heard something about the Syrian Civil War. Because it has received so much attention, many of the causes, events and even basic facts of the conflict have been jumbled up making it hard for many to understand what is going on.

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Photo credit: Freedom House. www.flickr.com/photos/syriafreedom

To help with this confusion, here are all the things you need to know to understand the Syrian Civil War.

About Syria

Syria is located in the Middle East and is bordered by Lebanon, Turkey and the Mediterranean Sea. The largest cities in the country are Aleppo and Damascus, the capital.

The country’s population of about 22.5 million people is comprised mostly of Arabic- speaking Muslims. Before the conflict, the Syrian government was considered a republic under authoritarian regime. This means that the president, Bashar al-Assad, singularly held the power to make most of the decisions for the country.

Origins of the Conflict

The conflict started in the city of Daara during March 2011 in response to the poor economic conditions, the further restrictions of human rights and unjust practices by the Syrian government, such as torturing of civilians. Protestors called for the overthrow of al-Assad and the establishment of a democracy.

In response to the protests, the government dispatched the Syrian army to stop the uprisings in Daara through arresting the protestors. Instead of stopping the uprising, the government’s actions reinforced and help spread the protestors’ message throughout the country.

Protesting continued throughout March. In response, al-Assad ordered large-scale military attacks on cities with high concentrations of protestors in late April. These attacks resulted in the deaths of many civilians and escalated the conflict into a Civil War.

Key Players

The Syrian opposition has received support in the form of weapons and limited military support from countries both inside and outside of the Middle East. The support for the Syrian opposition in the Middle East comes from the predominately Sunni Muslim countries including Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. France, the United Kingdom and the United States have also given political support to opposition forces.

The main supporters of the Syrian government are Iran and Hezbollah, a Shia political and military group. These supporters have given the government troops, weapons and have aided in military training and tactics. Russia, the Syrian government’s main ally outside the Middle East, has provided political support and weapons to government troops.

Chemical Weapons

One of the most unclear and contested aspects of the Syrian Civil war is the use of chemical weapons. Both the Syrian government and the opposition forces have claimed that the other side has attacked civilians using chemical weapons.

The deadliest chemical gas attacks occurred from June to September 2013 during which hundreds of people were killed in western Syria. Though the Syrian government denies the attacks, the United States proclaimed that the government was responsible for the chemical attacks in August 2013.

Numbers

As of August 2013, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has documented approximately 110,000 deaths since the start of the civil war. The Syrian Observatory also estimates that 4.25 million Syrians have been displaced from their homes.

More than two million people have fled Syria to countries including Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Lebanon with the hopes of finding safety. The UN estimates that nearly half of the evacuees from the war are children, most of which are younger than 11 years old.

More than 9,000 buildings have been destroyed since the start of the conflict. The public sector has also lost an estimated $15 billion because of lost or damaged infrastructure and manufacturing sites which drove the Syrian economy.

The Next Steps

After declaring the Syrian government responsible for the chemical gas attacks in August, President Obama announced that the United States would perform military air strikes on the country unless the Syrian government handed over their chemical weapons to the United Nations. At first, Syria continued to deny the attacks and the United States seemed ready to perform missile strikes, but Russia proposed a diplomatic solution involving the disarmament of Syria and the United States agreed.

The solution, which was backed by the United Nations, includes sending in a weapons task force to collect and destroy all of Syria’s 1000 tons of chemical weapons.  This taskforce arrived in Syria on Oct. 1 and are expected to have the stockpile destroyed and cleaned up by mid-2014.

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