“Reports of a mass casualty chemical weapons attack in the suburbs of Damascus are reshaping the long-running and contentious debate over possible U.S. intervention in Syria’s bloody civil war. Obama Administration officials and some foreign governments report that on August 21, 2013, forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al Asad attacked opposition-controlled areas in the suburbs of the capital with chemical weapons, killing hundreds of civilians, including women and children. The Syrian government has denied the accusations categorically and blames the opposition for the attack. United Nations inspectors who were in Syria to investigate other alleged chemical weapons attacks collected and are analyzing information related to the incident. Varying accounts suggest that several hundred to more than 1,000 people were killed from exposure to a poisonous gas, with symptoms consistent with exposure to the nerve agent sarin. Possible punitive U.S. military action against the Asad regime is now the subject of intense debate, amid the broader ongoing discussion of U.S. policy toward the Syrian civil war and its regional consequences. The August 21 incident is the latest in a string of reported instances where Syrian forces appear to have used chemical weapons despite President Obama’s prior statement that the transfer or use of chemical weapons is “a red line” that would “change his calculus.” The President and senior members of his Administration have argued that the United States has a national security interest in ensuring that “when countries break international norms on chemical weapons they are held accountable.” At the same time, President Obama still maintains that extensive, sustained U.S. military intervention to shape the outcome of Syria’s civil conflict is undesirable. Prior to the August 21 incident, U.S. military leaders had outlined options to accomplish a range of U.S. objectives, while warning that U.S. military involvement “cannot resolve the underlying and historic ethnic, religious and tribal issues that are fueling this conflict.”
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