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Conflict, an alleged chemical attack, and fallout

Tuesday - 9/3/2013, 3:10am  ET

In this citizen journalism image provided by Edlib News Network, ENN, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, Syrians search under rubble to rescue people from houses that were destroyed by a Syrian government warplane, in Idlib province, northern Syria, Friday, Aug. 30, 2013. President Barack Obama insists Syria must pay the price for chemical attacks that killed hundreds of civilians last week in the outskirts of Beirut and laid the groundwork for an expected punitive military strike. But questions remain about just how, when and who will participate in the strikes. (AP Photo/Edlib News Network ENN)

TOM RAUM
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Barack Obama's administration insists that Syrian President Bashar Assad's government carried out a chemical weapons attack against his own people.

Obama has decided the U.S. should take military action, but will seek authorization from Congress for the use of force. It is uncertain when Congress will debate and vote on the authorization. Lawmakers are scheduled to return to Washington on Sept. 9.

The Obama administration, however, is having trouble getting other countries to support a limited attack.

Assad's government denies the allegations and insists the rebels are to blame for any chemical attack. Russia is among the countries lining up behind him.

A look at the latest developments and how it got to this point:

THE SYRIAN CONFLICT

Now in its third year, the civil war in a small country with a population of about 23 million is complicated and brutal. There are heavy civilian casualties on both sides.

The conflict has increasingly taken on sectarian tones as rebels, some of them Islamic extremists, fight government loyalists. It's essentially a regional proxy war increasingly fought along sectarian lines, pitting Sunni against Shiite Muslims, and threatening the stability of Syria's neighbors.

By mid-2011, a loose coalition of rebels and anti-government tribal groups had formed the Free Syrian Army whose goal was to topple Assad. As the violence increased, more people fled the country.

Rebels appeared to be gaining the upper hand and they occupied more and more territory. But over the past few months the military scored a string of victories and their offensives pushed many rebels back into the Damascus suburbs.

Assad's government increased its pressure on rebels as pro-democracy Arab Spring movements swept through the region last year.

The United Nations estimates that roughly 1.5 million people have fled, many into Lebanon.

THE WORLD'S RESPONSE TO SYRIA'S CIVIL WAR BEFORE THE ALLEGED CHEMICAL ATTACK

Even before the alleged chemical attacks, the Assad government was hit with an increasing number of penalties from European countries and the U.S.

While Assad gained increasing support and supplies from Russia and Iran, the escalating sanctions by the European Union and the United States put more pressure on people struggling with food and fuel shortages and inflation.

OBAMA'S RED LINE AND EARLIER RESPONSE

Last summer, Obama said that Assad's use of chemical weapons would cross a red line, suggesting greater U.S. intervention. Then in June, the White House said it had conclusive evidence that Assad used chemical weapons against rebel fighters, and Obama decided to respond by authorizing the arming of Syria's rebels.

The move promised to deepen U.S. involvement in the conflict and heightening U.S. tensions with Russia, a staunch ally of Assad.

It was a turning point for the U.S., which up to that point had avoided getting drawn into the conflict militarily.

A chief U.S. concern had been that U.S.-supplied weapons could fall into the hands of al-Qaida-linked militants fighting alongside the rebels.

THE TIPPING POINT

On Aug. 21, the Obama administration says, Assad's government unleashed a chemical attack outside Damascus. The government of Syria denies there were any chemical attacks.

Syrian officials insist that rebels carried out the attacks. There's disagreement within the international community over whether there were chemical weapons used. Estimates of the dead have varied depending on the source.

Activists and those who live in the area have said well over 1,000 people died in the attacks. Secretary of State John Kerry put the death count at 1,429, of which he said 426 were children. The nonpartisan humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders has put the death toll at 355 people.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, one of the main groups monitoring casualties in Syria, said Saturday it has only been able to confirm 502 deaths, identifying victims by name.

THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION'S ARGUMENT

Obama has decided the U.S. should take military action against Syria, and while he has the authority to act alone, he will seek authorization from Congress. Obama is considering a limited and narrow action in response to a chemical weapons attack that he says Syria's government carried out last week.

He made the comments after the U.S. released an intelligence assessment that found with "high confidence" that Assad's government carried out the chemical attack.

But Obama has not yet been able to show that Assad himself ordered the attacks or spelled out how punishing military strikes might defer future use of chemical weapons in the region.

COALITION OF THE NOT-SO WILLING

It's been hard for Obama to assemble an international coalition to confront Syria.

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