Newsbeat's guide to... Syria


Syrian flag

The UK is to provide rebel fighters in Syria extra funding for communication equipment and medical supplies.

The £5m in support will be given to the largest rebel group, The Free Syrian Army.

However, the assistance will not include any weapons.

It marks a significant shift in policy by the British government.

The violence started in the country in March 2011.

Below we explain the background to this conflict and why foreign military intervention is being avoided.

Why is Syria in civil war?

A ceasefire to end the violence in Syria started in April after being arranged by former UN chief Kofi Annan.

However, fighting continued despite the plan being agreed by both sides.

Syrian flag
Image caption Protests are taking place around the world against Syria's government

The International Committee of the Red Cross, which oversees the Geneva Conventions, said fighting had now spread beyond the three hot spots of Idlib, Homs and Hama.

The organisation said the situation in Syria was now regarded as a "non-international armed conflict", a technical term for civil war.

The UN says more than 16,000 people have been killed in the uprising against President Assad's rule, which began more than a year ago.

The Syrian government says 2,000 security personnel have been killed and blames the violence on "armed gangs" and "terrorists".

What do the protesters want?

Demonstrations began shortly after anti-government uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt in mid-March last year.

A group of teenagers spray-painted a revolutionary slogan on a wall in the southern city of Deraa.

They were arrested and soon the unrest spread to other areas.

Protesters started by calling for democracy and freedom in what is one of the most repressive countries in the Arab world.

For example, there are emergency laws which allow people to be arrested without warrants and imprisoned without trials.

Syria's president has promised some changes but protesters say the killing is continuing so they want him to step down.

Mr Assad has described protesters as terrorists who need to be removed.

Why is there no foreign military action as in Libya?

For decades Syria has been among the most stable countries in the Middle East.

It is a major player in the region because of where it's positioned, unlike Libya which is more isolated.

President Bashar al-Assad
Image caption President Assad has promised changes but protesters don't believe him

A military attack on Syria would cause knock-on effects in neighbouring countries.

It may mobilise militant groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in the Gaza Strip and other more radical Palestinian groups opposed to peace with Israel.

Syria is also strongly supported by Iran - a country considered hostile by the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia - which could potentially draw those powers into a dangerous Middle Eastern conflict.

President Bashar al-Assad has warned any foreign military action will turn Syria "into another Afghanistan".

Is there any support for the president inside Syria?

Syria is a mixed country of 21 million people with a large Sunni Muslim majority and minorities of Christians, Alawites and Jewish people.

Mr Assad belongs to the Alawite sect.

He's supported by many people from the upper classes and minority groups.

The protests against him have mainly been in Sunni populated areas.