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Syria’s Use of Chemical Weapons Could Be “Game-Changer”

April 29, 2013

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New allegations that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons against its people has forced President Barack Obama to reconsider whether or not to intervene militarily in the civil war that has already killed over 70,000 Syrians.

A picture taken on April 26 shows smoke rising after shelling in Houla in Syria’s Homs province. The opposition National Coalition has accused the regime of using chemical weapons in the northern province of Aleppo, in Homs in central Syria, and in rebel-held areas near Damascus.

“The U.S. intelligence community assesses with some degree of varying confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically, the chemical agent sarin,” said U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel last week.

On Friday, President Barack Obama told reporters that the U.S. is working with the United Nations and countries in the region to quickly assess the situation. He said the “preliminary” intelligence reports left “varying degrees of confidence about the actual use.”

Determining whether or not the regime has used chemical weapons is important in planning a possible U.S. response. “I’ve been very clear publicly, but also privately, that for the Syrian government to utilize chemical weapons on its people crosses a line that will change my calculus and how the United States approaches these issues,” said the president. “To use potential weapons of mass destruction on civilian populations, that is going to be a game changer.”

Should the U.S. send troops to Syria?

While members of Congress agree that the U.S. must respond if Syria uses chemical weapons, there is no consensus about what action to take.

Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona supports arming the rebels and imposing a no-fly zone, but not sending in U.S. troops.

“The American people are weary. They don’t want boots on the ground. I don’t want boots on the ground,” McCain said during an appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press. “The worst thing the United States could do right now is put boots on the ground on Syria.”

However, his colleague Republican Senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina says that sending in U.S. troops is necessary to secure chemical weapons supplies.

“If we keep this hands-off approach to Syria, this indecisive action toward Syria, kind of not knowing what we’re going to do next, we’re going to start a war with Iran because Iran’s going to take our inaction in Syria as meaning we’re not serious about their nuclear weapons program,” Graham said on the CBS News program Face the Nation.

The White House has refused to speculate on its response until the intelligence has been confirmed, but a letter to Congress warned that “no option is off the table.”

According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll, only 27 percent of Americans would support intervening in Syria if the government in Damascus uses chemical weapons, while 44 percent would remain opposed.

President Obama met Friday with King Abdullah II of Jordan to discuss the fighting in neighboring Syria. Jordan has had nearly half-a-million Syrian refugees come across its border to escape the fighting.

What is sarin gas?

According to the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA), modern chemical weapons first came into use during World War I. Chlorine, phosgene (a choking agent), mustard gas (which inflicts painful burns on the skin) and other chemicals killed over 100,000 people.

This led to the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which banned the use of chemical weapons in warfare. Later, the 1993 UN Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) outlawed the production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons. However, Syria is one of eight nations who have not signed the treaty.

The chemical that Syria is accused of using is sarin gas. Sarin is a colorless, odorless liquid known as a “nerve agent” that can shut down the body’s nervous system when inhaled in gas form or absorbed through the skin.

In 1988, the Iraqi government used sarin gas and other chemical weapons on the city of Halabja in Northern Iraq, killing an estimated 5,000 people. Sarin was used again in 1995 when a Japanese cult released the gas into the Tokyo subway, killing 13 people and injuring a thousand others.

— Compiled by Allison McCartney for NewsHour Extra

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