Led by President Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian regime launched an extreme and violent crackdown last year on activists demanding more civil liberties, political freedom and economic opportunities.
This crackdown initiated a nationwide uprising in response, and eventually led to a civil war with armed rebels, many of whom defected from the military.
According to the United Nations, As of July 2013, the conflict has claimed an estimated 17,000 lives, mostly those of civilians; in addition more than 170,000 people fled Syria, seeking refuge in neighboring countries such as Iraq, Jordan and Turkey.
Throughout the conflict, al-Assad and his government has referred to the opposition as terrorists with the goal of destabilizing the country. Opposition leaders say that characterization is the government’s way of justifying attacks.
How did the world get here?
The January 2011 revolution in Tunisia marked the beginning of the “Arab Spring”- a movement that initiated changes in nations throughout North Africa and the Middle East.
Like Tunisia, the countries in this area were experiencing high unemployment and political repression under long-serving autocratic leaders.
In March 2011, the movement reached Syria; violence broke out in Daraa, Syria, after a group of children and teenagers were arrested for writing political graffiti.
Demonstrators soon began calling for al-Assad to leave office, following in the footsteps of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia's Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. Instead of letting go of his long-held power, Al-Assad promised to make changes, including the lifting of the country's state-of-emergency law, which for 48 years gave the regime the power to detain anyone without charge and hold them indefinitely.
But just four days after the emergency law was lifted in April 2011, the Syrian regime ordered troops into Daraa for a crackdown, according to witnesses.
Since then, violence has spread throughout the country, resulting in a civil war between the regime and an armed resistance.
Who is in charge of Syria?
Bashar al-Assad has been president of Syria since his father, Hafez, died in 2000 after a nearly thirty year rule.
When Bashar assumed office at the age of 34, Western nations believed he might be a more moderate leader than his father Hafez, who was a Soviet ally, had been.
The al-Assad family is Alawite, a Shiite Muslim offshoot that's one of the minorities in a country that is nearly three-quarters Sunni. Many of Bashar’s supporters are Alawites and other minority groups fear what might happen if the Sunnis were to gain power.
Who is rebelling?
Since the uprising’s beginning, the Syrian government’s opposition has become larger, more organized and better armed; many of the fighters are ex-soldiers who defected from the military, but there are civilians who have joined the fight against the al-Assad regime.
The primary oppositions group is the Free Syrian Army, which was formed in July 2011. However it isn’t the only militia opposing al-Assad, and there are questions about how unified the opposition truly is.
In general the rebels have proven they can effectively attack the regime. But it has been unable to hold captured cities for very long periods, constantly being forced to retreat under the pressure of a more powerful Syrian military that is better equipped.
The United States and many of its Western allies have condemned al-Assad’s actions and are demanding that he leave power. But they have not been able to persuade the U.N. Security Council to do the same. China and Russia -- two of Syria's commercial partners -- have vetoed several proposed resolutions in regards to Syria.
Without a vital international consensus, most countries remain hesitant to intervene in the Syrian crisis militarily. However, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are believed to be sending arms to the opposition. Iran and Lebanon-based Hezbollah are supporting al-Assad and the Syrian regime.
Currently only the United States is providing non-lethal aid and humanitarian assistance.
Why does the world care about Syria?
Obviously the Syrian conflict has resulted in an urgent humanitarian crisis, with many now facing starvation and needing in aid. The U.N. says the violence has made it difficult for many Syrians to access food, water, electricity and medical supplies, forcing tens of thousands to flee the country.
But Syria's key role in the heart of the Middle East means there might also be long-term geopolitical consequences at stake.
Many analysts see the conflict as a proxy war between Iran and its Sunni Arab rivals in the region, between Iran and the United States, and even between the United States and Russia -- the latter "about who is going to have more say in the future of the region and on what terms the international community will intervene in conflicts such as Syria," said Nader Mousavizadeh, chief executive of Oxford Analytica.
Because the Syrian regime is Alawite and the majority of the country is Sunni, there is also concern that Syria could devolve, like Iraq once did, into a bloody, sectarian battle that could further destabilize the Middle East region.
Then there is the Arab-Israeli issue to consider. Syria has become an important Palestinian ally through the years, actively supporting Hamas and Hezbollah while sharing a border with Israel. What will the Syrian outcome mean for Mideast peace?
As Henry Kissinger, the former U.S. diplomat, once said, "The Arabs can't make war without Egypt, and they can't make peace without Syria."