Syria | Assad Accused of Launching a Chemical Attack
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- Assad Accused of Launching a Chemical Attack
- Splintering of Opposition, Rise of ISIS Cause Concern
- UN-Led Negotiations Begin in Geneva; Rebels Suffer Setbacks
- Assad Re-elected in a Disputed Election
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Assad Accused of Launching a Chemical Attack
On Aug. 21, 2013, opposition groups accused the government of attacking rebel areas in Zamalka, Ein Terma, and Erbeen, suburbs east of Damascus, with chemical weapons. 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. Inspectors were cleared to investigate the site, and their convoy was fired on by snipers en route. They did gain access to the affected areas and took samples for testing.
Because Russia and China vowed to veto any UN Security Council resolution authorizing retaliation on Assad, the U.S. and allies hoped to form a coalition to support an attack. 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.
Obama surprised many on September 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, and the country applied to join the the Chemical Weapons Convention. Given the uncertainty of Congressional authorization, diplomacy would spare Obama a potential rebuke that could undercut his authority for the remainder of his presidency.
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 Assad'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 June 30, 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.