Explainer: What's Going On In Syria

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A young boy is consoled after his grandparents appear to have been killed in a government strike on the Sunni village of Al Barra.

The Obama Administration is planning a military intervention in Syria. In case you just started following the story now, here's what you need to know. UPDATED with information from Obama's Saturday speech.

Update: What did President Obama say on Saturday?

That the US should take military intervention on limited targets in Syria. There would be no "boots on the ground" and the action would not go on indefinitely. He did not say when the intervention would start. Obama also said he would seek authorization from Congress, though he said he did not need it in order to act. A debate and vote will happen when Congress comes back into session. But he said that UN Security Council authorization was not necessary.

Obama said the Syrian chemical attack is "an assault on human dignity" and an assault on our national security and the security of our allies. He said that there would be a large cost if the government did not act - perhaps proliferation of chemical weapons, perhaps the perception that the US won't act in the face of genocide or if countries or the inappropriate use of weapons. 

"We will insist that an atrocity committed with chemical weapons must be confronted," he said. But he said that the underlying conflict in Syria will not be resolved with the intervention of the U.S. military.


UPDATE: What did Kerry and Obama say on Friday?

President Obama, speaking before a meeting with Baltic leaders, said he'd made no final decision on Syria, but that he was contemplating a "limited narrow act" that would not entail "boots on the ground."

Earlier, Secretary of State Kerry [full transcript] made the case that Syrians did indeed have chemical weapons that they used against their own people. He called President Assad a "thug and a murderer" and "we have been warned against the temptations of looking the other way." But he also said that ultimately "the primary objective is to have a diplomatic process that can resolve this through negotiation."

In other words, the situation is still evolving.

1. Why is the U.S. getting involved?

Because of the likely use of chemical weapons. Doctors Without Borders says that three hospitals in Damascus reported that approximately 3,600 patients displayed "neurotoxic symptoms in less than three hours on Aug. 21, 2013." About 355 people were killed.

Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement that the alleged chemical attack by President Bashar Assad's forces on rebel-held areas was a "moral obscenity." He accused the Assad regime of destroying evidence.

Chemical weapons are banned under international law. The Syrian regime has refused to allow U.N. inspectors access to the site of the attack — in fact, they shelled the site again, to prevent a full inspection.

Syria says that it is the rebels who launched the chemical weapons and that is a possibility. But Syria has been protecting a vast stockpile of those weapons since at least the early 1980s.

2. Is the world on board?

No — not everyone thinks airstrikes are a good idea, although Kerry said the U.S. has support from France and Australia. Great Britain's parliament has voted against action. The U.N. is pleading for more time. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon says no action should be taken until U.N. chemical weapons inspectors finish investigating, which will happen soon, he says. He is also calling for an increase in diplomacy.

Russia and Iran — allies of Syria — are warning that if other countries intervene there will be repercussions. Meanwhile, Israel is worried. The country is calling up reserve troops; residents there lined up at gas-mask distribution centers this week.

The Times reports that the airstrikes would be "limited," perhaps lasting only a couple days. They would be aimed at sites, such as air bases, that helped carry out the chemical attacks. The attacks are not expected to end the conflict.

3. How did this start, anyway?

It was part of the Arab Spring, the series of protests across the Middle East that called for political, economic and social reforms.

In March 2011,  locals in the Syrian city of Deraa protested after 15 schoolchildren were arrested — and perhaps tortured — for writing anti-government graffiti. The protests started off peacefully, but on March 18, the army opened fire and killed four people. Continued army violence the next day set off protests around the country and eventually transformed into a rebel insurgence.

Protesters are calling for the resignation of President Bashar al-Assad. He succeeded his father, Hafez al-Assad to the presidency in 2000; Hafez al-Assad had ruled Syria since 1971.

4. How bad is it?

The United Nations estimates that more than 100,000 people have died and more than 2 million people have fled Syria. A million of those refugees are children. Nearly 1 in 3 Syrians are refugees or displaced within the country.

4. What's next?

Most likely, U.S.-led airstrikes. But that might not solve anything and will likely draw Western powers deeper into the conflict.

Fawaz Gerges, director of the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics, told the Christian Science Monitor: "The two words that really describe Syria today are stalemate and deadlock. This is the worst scenario because what political deadlock and military stalemate mean is that it's turning into a war of attrition, it's a long war, it's a costly war. Neither side has the means to deliver a decisive blow."

With reporting from the Associated Press