Syria: what you need to know about the conflict

August 29, 2013

An activist wearing a gas mask is seen in the Zamalka area, where activists say chemical weapons were used by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad in the eastern suburbs of Damascus. (Reuters)

The United States is preparing to lead a possible military strike on Syria following allegations of a chemical weapon attack near Damascus last week that killed scores. Here are answers to seven questions about the situation in Syria, global reaction and where we go from here.

What is the United States going to do?

In an interview with “PBS Newshour” on Aug. 28, President Obama said that the administration had concluded that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons and would repsond in some way, but did not specify any U.S. decision on possible airstrikes. David Nakamura explains:

Obama has said the use of chemical weapons would represent a “red line,” and administration officials are reportedly leaning toward a limited military response that would include bombings of strategic Syrian targets, but not the chemical weapon stockpiles that are thought to be hidden throughout the country.

Administration officials have said that the goal would not be to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power but to deliver a strong message that the international community will not abide the use of chemical agents.

Does Congress need to approve airstrikes before they happen?

The White House has not indicated that the administration would seek Congress’ approval before taking military action. Members of Congress from both parties have written and co-signed letters asking Obama to seek congressional approval prior to airstrikes. House Speaker John Boehner has also asked Obama to consult with Congress about possible military action. David Nakamura explains:

On Wednesday, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) sent a letter to Obama demanding that he personally “make the case to the American people and Congress for how potential military action will secure American national security interests.”

Obama briefed Boehner during a phone call Thursday afternoon, according to Boehner’s spokesman Brendan Buck. The speaker pressed Obama on the concerns outlined in his letter, Buck said, adding that “it is clear that further dialogue and consultation with Congress, as well as communication with the American public, will be needed.”

So is this the first time chemical weapons have been used?

No. Chemical weapons have been used in the past but are a rarity. This incident would be the first major use of chemical weapons by a government against its own people in decades. Ernesto Londono explains:

If the weapons were deployed by the Syrian government, as Western officials allege, it would represent the first major chemical weapons attack by a nation against its own citizens since Saddam Hussein gassed Kurds in northern Iraq in 1988, an act so barbaric it galvanized the movement for a world free of chemical weapons.

What is the expected timeline of possible military action?

U.S. allies Britain and France have said they want to delay military action until they have the results of the U.N. inspections. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has said that the United Nations team would leave Syria on Saturday and brief him immediately. It is expected that the U.N. Security Council will be briefed on the findings before any airstrike takes place.

What are possible targets of U.S. airstrikes?

On Tuesday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said, “We are prepared. We have moved assets in place to be able to fulfill and comply with whatever option the president wishes to take. We are ready to go.”

This graphic, created by Gene Thorp, Anup Kaphle and Darla Cameron, maps possible strike targets in Syria as well as U.S. resources in the area.

How is the rest of the world responding?

U.S. allies want to delay military action until there is conclusive evidence of chemical attacks from U.N. reports. At the same time, Russia — an Assad ally — and China are urging restraint.

Britain | Prime Minister David Cameron is engaged in a political fight in Parliament and has said he will delay action until the United Nations has reviewed a report from weapons inspectors in Syria. Anthony Faiola reports:

“It would be unthinkable to proceed if there was overwhelming opposition in the [U.N.] Security Council,” Cameron told Parliament.

At the same time, the prime minister offered an impassioned argument for authorizing military action. He said evidence clearly indicates that the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was responsible for the deadly attack and declared that the West has an obligation to deter a possible repeat of “one of the most abhorrent uses of chemical weapons in a century.”

The British government also released a report Thursday that explained, “Military intervention to strike specific targets with the aim of deterring and disrupting further such attacks would be necessary and proportionate and therefore legally justifiable.”

France | Faiola reports that France also seeks to delay military action:

French officials also are calling for a delay in action until U.N. inspectors conclude their report. “Before acting, we need proof,” said Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, a minister and government spokeswoman, according to Bloomberg News.

Russia | Will Engulnd reports that Russia is accusing the West of jumping the gun on Syria.

A British resolution in the U.N. Security Council condemning the Syrian government for using chemical weapons is premature given that the inspectors in Syria have not yet reported back on their findings, Russia’s first deputy foreign minister, Vladimir Titov, said in remarks quoted by the Interfax news agency.

China | William Van writes that China is urging the United States to exercise restraint.

“China calls on all parties to exercise restraint and calm,” said China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi. He said a political solution was “the only realistic way out on the Syrian issue.”

Wang’s statement, posted on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Web site, was accompanied by a chorus of harsher editorials in China’s state-controlled media, accusing Western powers of rushing to judgment and using chemical weapons as an excuse to cover up less righteous motives.

Iran | Iranian officials have warned against U.S.-led military intervention in Syria and alluded to possible counterattacks on Israel. Jason Rezaian explains:

Iranian officials on Wednesday warned against a possible U.S.-led military strike on Syria in the wake of an alleged chemical weapons attack there last week.

While some Iranian lawmakers implied that any foreign military intervention in Syria would result in counterattacks on Israel, the Islamic republic’s top leaders say their priority is averting a larger war in the Middle East.

Israel | While the U.S. and its allies are debating military action, nervous Israelis are rushing for gas masks. William Booth and Ruth Eglash report from Jerusalem:

A shortage of gas masks caused a mini-melee among panicky moms pushing strollers here Wednesday, as Israelis prepared for possible U.S. airstrikes against Syria that could trigger retaliatory attacks in Israel.

How are people in Syria responding to all of this?

Residents of Damascus are anxiously awaiting a military strike. Loveday Morris and Ahmed Ramadan report from Beirut:

While potential options for military intervention were debated in the West, Damascenes did what little they could to prepare. The streets of the city were unusually quiet as residents said many had taken the day off work or joined thousands who have fled for neighboring Lebanon.

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