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2013 World News: Syria

Diplomacy Trumps Force Over Chemical Weapons


Bashar Assad

Bashar Assad

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Syrian president Bashir Assad was accused several times in 2013 of unleashing chemical weapons on civilians. Despite mounting evidence against him, Assad denied the charges and blamed the rebels for the attacks. However, he complied with benchmarks put forth in a UN Security Council resolution that requires Syria to hand over or destroy its chemical weapons and production facilities.

In April 2013, Israel said it had evidence that Assad had used chemical weapons, specifically sarin, a deadly nerve agent, on rebels. That followed the assertion by France and England that Assad unleashed chemical weapons on rebel-held areas in Damascus, Aleppo, and Homs in March. The U.S. initially distanced itself from Israel's conclusion, but on April 25, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said the intelligence community believed with "varying degrees of confidence" that Assad had used chemical weapons. He said the U.S. would need confirmation before considering action against Assad. President Obama said in December 2012 the use of chemical weapons would cross a "red line" and merit a response. Given the lesson learned from Iraq, the U.S. was wary of rushing to intervene without incontrovertible evidence that the weapons had been deployed. In June, the U.S. determined that Assad had used chemical agents "on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year" and said it would begin supplying arms and ammunition to the rebels. The Obama administration, however, said it would not give them anti-aircraft weapons, which the rebels have requested.

On Aug. 21, 2013, opposition groups accused the government of attacking rebel areas with chemical weaponsin Zamalka, Ein Terma, and Erbeen, suburbs east of Damascus. Gruesome, graphic images in the media showed victims foaming at the mouth and twitching and lines of covered corpses. The opposition said as many as 1,000 people died in the attack. The government denied it launched a chemical attack. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called the attack a "moral obscenity" and an "indiscriminate slaughter of civilians." The alleged attack coincided with the arrival of UN inspectors to Syria to investigate earlier allegations of government use of chemical weapons.

President Obama said on Aug. 27 that he was considering a limited strike on the military bases and the artillery that he believes were responsible for the chemical attack, and French president Francois Hollande and British prime minister David Cameron backed Obama's plan. However, on Aug. 29, the British parliament voted down Cameron's request for authorization to attack Syria—a stunning setback to Cameron. On Aug. 31, the Obama administration released an intelligence summary that it said provided evidence that the Syrian government ordered the chemcial attack and that the assault killed 1,429 people. The intelligence summary reported that the military had been preparing for the attack for three days prior to the launch.

Diplomacy Trumps Force Over Chemical Weapons Issue

Obama surprised many on Sept. 1, when he announced that he would seek Congressional approval for a military action. On Sept. 4, the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted, 10 to 7, to authorize the action. In the following days, Obama attempted to rally support for the strike, but both the public and Congress expressed increasing reluctance for military action. A diplomatic solution was back on the table on Sept. 9, after U.S. secretary of state John Kerry suggested half-heartedly that a strike could be averted if Assad agreed to hand over all chemical weapons. Russia took the proposal seriously, and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said, "If the establishment of international control over chemical weapons in the country will prevent attacks, then we will immediately begin work with Damascus. And we call on the Syrian leadership to not only agree to setting the chemical weapons storage sites under international control, but also to their subsequent destruction." Syrian foreign minister Walid al-Moallem also embraced the option. "We are ready to reveal the locations of the chemical weapon sites and to stop producing chemical weapons and make these sites available for inspection by representatives of Russia, other countries and the United Nations," he said in a statement on Sept. 12. It was the first time the Syrian government acknowledged it had chemical weapons.

On Sept. 16, the UN confirmed in a report that the chemical agent sarin had been used near Damascus on Aug. 21. "Chemical weapons have been used in the ongoing conflict between the parties in the Syrian Arab Republic, also against civilians, including children, on a relatively large scale," the report said. "The environmental, chemical and medical samples we have collected provide clear and convincing evidence that surface-to-surface rockets containing the nerve agent sarin were used." The report did not explicitly indicate who was responsible for launching the attack, but details about where the rockets that carried sarin originated from clearly pointed to government military positions. In particular, two rockets were fired from Mount Qasioun, an area in Damascus that protects Assadb s presidential palace.

The five permanent members of the Security Council agreed on a resolution on Sept. 26 that requires Syria to either turn over or destroy all of its chemical weapons and production facilities by mid-2014. The agreement set several benchmarks Syria must meet before the 2014 deadline. If Syria fails to comply, then the Security Council will reconvene to determine repercussions, which could include military action or sanctions. The timetable is extremely aggressive; such disarmament typically takes years, not months. While the agreement delayed a Congressional vote on a military strike, the U.S. kept that possibility on the table. "If diplomacy fails, the United States remains prepared to act," Obama said. UN officials arrived in Syria in early October and began destroying equipment used to produce the chemical weapons. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons reported on Oct. 31 that Syria had met its first deadline to destroy all of the chemical weapons production and mixing facilities.

Splintering of Opposition Signal Staying Power of Assad

In March, the opposition coalition elected Ghassan Hitto, a Syrian-born American computer executive who until recently lived in Texas, as prime minister of the opposition Syrian National Coalition. He returned to the Middle East, working out of Turkey, to help improve the flow of humanitarian aid to the rebels. Many members of the coalition, however, opposed the election of Hitto, and Sheikh Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib resigned as president of the coalition. The turn of events left many wondering if the opposition coalition would survive the political turmoil. Despite the dissonance within the opposition, the Syrian National Coalition took Syria's seat at the summit meeting of the Arab League in March, with Khatib as its representative.

Hitto stepped down in early July after less than four months in office. He made little progress in running and organizing the rebels and their strongholds, and efforts to garner aid from the West fell short of expectations. His resignation came just days after Amad Jarba, a tribal leader from the northeastern part of the country, was elected president of the coalition. In September, the coalition elected Ahmad Saleh Touma, a dentist and political activist, as interim prime minister.

As the opposition showed signs of fracturing, Sunni versus Shiite violence intensified, and Assad's forces held on to Damascus, most of central Syria, and cities in the north with the help of Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah, the U.S. acknowledged in July 2013 that Assad would likely remain in power and control parts of Syria indefinitely.

The fragile coalition of opposition groups further splintered in late September, when 11 rebel groups announced that they would no longer recognize the Syrian National Coalition, the dissident leadership that is based in Turkey. Instead, the groups said they would work together to establish sharia, or Islamic law, in Syria. The move signaled the rising power of groups affiliated with al-Qaeda—a troubling development. In December, the U.S. and Britain suspended non-lethal aid to the opposition after the Islamic Front, a group that severed ties with the moderate coalition backed by the U.S., confiscated equipment provided to the rebels by the U.S.

By December, the humanitarian crisis in Syria had worsened, with both rebels and government troops blocking the delivery of much-needed food and medical aid to civilians. The death toll had reached nearly 126,000 and some 3 million people had fled to other countries in the region.

—Beth Rowen

Information Please® Database, © 2007 Pearson Education, Inc. All rights reserved.

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