WASHINGTON -- The Obama administrations preparations on Syria this week raise many thorny questions about the risks associated with launching a punitive strike against Bashar Assads regime over the alleged use of chemical weapons.
Below are some of the main questions, along with answers compiled from McClatchys own reporting, other news reports, think tank analyses, and the conclusions of experts on Middle East policy, national security and chemical weapons.
This primer is based on the latest information available, and some of the answers could change, as developments are coming fast in the buildup to an intervention. Its important to remember that the Obama administration has yet to officially announce any course of action, though officials have issued a clear warning that Assad would be held accountable.
Q: Why are we considering military action in Syria?
A: The Obama administration says the Syrian regime must be punished for past use and deterred from future use of chemical weapons in the countrys civil war.
For months, the White House has believed that Syria was using such arms on a small scale, but the trigger for this current buildup was an Aug. 21 attack that killed hundreds of people the precise number is unclear in an eastern suburb of Damascus. To the administration, that was an inexcusable crossing of a red line President Barack Obama set; he risks losing credibility if his warning is seen as a bluff.
The White House is stressing that any action would be punitive for the alleged use of chemical weapons, but not intended to remove the regime. Such a response after the war has entered a third year and killed more than 100,000 doesnt satisfy the Syrian opposition, which has long asked for foreign military help in toppling Assad.
The U.S. stance also doesnt reassure critics of intervention who recall that the U.S. joined a NATO-led campaign in Libya on similar humanitarian grounds and ended up participating in the removal of Moammar Gadhafi.
Q: Is it certain that chemical weapons were used?
A: The United States and European allies such as France and Britain have said theyre certain of chemical weapons use in Syria, and they hold the Assad regime responsible because it has control over the stocks and delivery systems.
Apart from classified intelligence some of which may be released publicly this week the U.S. points to witness accounts and amateur videos that show dozens of dead and dying Syrians.
Chemical weapons experts generally agree that the high number of casualties and symptoms exhibited in the videos are consistent with the use of some type of chemical agent, but theyre being cautious in their pronouncements until they see results from samples collected by a U.N. inspection team thats currently in Syria.
The U.N. teams mandate is just to determine whether chemical weapons were used but not to assign culpability.
The Syrian regime denies using chemical weapons and repeatedly has said the rebels were the ones employing such methods. And a mystery remains: Why would the regime use chemical weapons, which almost certainly would invite Western intervention, when the U.N. inspectors had just arrived in the country?
Q: What legal basis is there for an attack on Syria?
A: Britain drafted a U.N. Security Council resolution that would condemn the use of chemical weapons and authorize necessary measures to protect Syrian civilians.