4. Modern history
For nearly four centuries, Syria was part of the Ottoman Empire. Along with what is now Lebanon, Syria came under French control after the Ottoman Empire collapsed in 1918, and became an independent country in 1946. Because the area was once one territory, Syria has traditionally tried to exert influence over Lebanon, and from 1976 to 2005, Syrian troops occupied portions of Lebanon, ostensibly to protect Lebanon from outside threats. (Demonstrations in Lebanon successfully removed Syrian presence in the country after the assassination of Lebanon's Prime Minister Rafic Hariri.)
Hafez al-Assad, the current president's father, was in power from 1971 until his death in 2000. The elder Assad violently squelched dissent and killed thousands of people in a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in 1982. The current president Assad assumed his position after his father's death.
5. Current conflict
The civil war was set in motion after President Bashar al-Assad violently suppressed pro-democracy demonstrations in 2011. Rebel groups began to organize to oust Assad. However, those groups have increasingly been composed of Islamist factions, making the United States wary of assisting them.
In February 2012, several world leaders condemned the massacre by government forces of 300 people in the city of Homs. The United Nations estimates that about 100,000 people have been killed in fighting so far, with millions displaced by the conflict.
In August of last year, President Barack Obama said, "a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation."
After several reports of small-scale use of chemical weapons, on Aug. 21, opposition forces say that the government had used chemical weapons in an attack that killed more than 300 people and affected thousands of others in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta. On Aug. 26, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said there was strong evidence that the government had indeed used chemical weapons.
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