Why you should care
Because something must be done in Syria, even if there are no good options.
This is an OZY Special Briefing, an extension of the Presidential Daily Brief. The Special Briefing tells you what you need to know about an important issue, individual or story that is making news. Each one serves up an interesting selection of facts, opinions, images and videos in order to catch you up and vault you ahead.
WHAT TO KNOW
What happened? Syria reportedly used chemical weapons against its own citizens on Saturday in the rebel stronghold of Douma, a suburb of the nation’s capital, Damascus. The attack killed dozens, including children. A coalition of the U.S., Britain and France has pledged to coordinate a response, with U.S. President Donald Trump vowing in a tweet that Syrian dictator Bashar Assad would pay a “big price.”
Why does it matter? Russia blocked a U.N. Security Council resolution to establish a new mechanism for investigating chemical attacks in Syria and has warned the U.S against an “illegal military adventure.” With Russian troops supporting the Syrian government, many worry that a large-scale military response by the U.S. could result in a dangerous clash of major powers. President Trump, who had been planning to pull American troops out of Syria, has canceled a trip to Latin America this week to oversee the response, promising via Twitter that missiles fired at Syria “will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!’”
HOW TO THINK ABOUT IT
A history of violence. This attack is part of a years-long trend in which Syrian government forces have been accused of deploying chemical weapons against their own people — something President Obama identified as a “red line” in 2013. Reports of sarin and chlorine gas attacks have cropped up for nearly five years, despite the Assad regime’s pledge to destroy its chemical weapons stockpile. The pattern has stayed the same: Eyewitness testimony trickles in, the international community expresses outrage — but the war drags on.
Damning evidence. Medical workers in the area reported victims gasping for air, foaming at the mouth and reeking of chlorine, while international experts say the victims’ bodies appear to have been exposed to nerve agents. The World Health Organization has demanded access to the site to investigate claims that 500 people were affected by the chemical attack, and observers from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons are heading to Syria on a fact-finding mission. But they’ve been invited by the Syrian government itself — and to an area patrolled by regime-friendly Russian troops — which casts doubt over the prospect of an accurate investigation.
The right response. After last year’s chemical attack, which killed more than 80 civilians, U.S. warships fired 59 cruise missiles at one Syrian airfield in a largely symbolic response that did only temporary damage to the airfield. A new American response is likely to be more comprehensive and again be accomplished via missiles, given the extensive air defense and missile systems that Syria has for shooting down foreign aircraft — and Russia’s promise to shoot down any American projectiles in the area. Possible options include hitting multiple Syrian airbases and launching a series of strikes over several days.
Who wins, who loses. Israel, which was blamed for a bombing in Syria earlier in the week, would be one big loser from a total Assad victory, with a more entrenched Iranian presence on its border. It might even result in a land bridge from Iran — through Iraq and Syria — to its doorstep. Saudi Arabia, which backs rebels in Syria and also doesn’t want to see increased Iranian influence, could benefit from more U.S. pressure on Assad. The Crown Prince said the kingdom would be willing to take part in military action after the chemical attack. But Turkey, which backs rebels fighting Assad, would actually benefit from a U.S. withdrawal, as its troops are currently fighting American-backed Kurdish forces in the north.
WHAT TO READ
The Logic of Assad’s Brutality, by Thanassis Cambanis at The Atlantic
“Assad already has unraveled the global taboo against chemical weapons, in the process exposing the incoherence of the international community.”
Trump’s Syria Reversal Reveals He Never Had a Coherent Plan, by Jonah Shepp in New York Magazine
“Ironically, Trump, who blames the current state of affairs in Syria on Obama’s dithering, now finds himself in a situation somewhat similar to the one Obama faced in 2012: publicly committed to keeping the U.S. out of any more dubiously winnable entanglements in the Middle East, but compelled to act by Assad’s crimes against humanity.”
WHAT TO WATCH
Aftermath of Suspected Chemical Attack in Rebel-held Douma in Syria
“Social media videos show the aftermath of the attack as rescuers rush to hose down victims, many of whom are children.”
Watch on The Guardian on YouTube:
Assad Takes a Driving Tour of Ghouta
“This ensures what we were always saying, that people want the state and that the government is normally the legitimate father and mother of all people.”
Watch at The New York Times:
WHAT TO SAY AT THE WATERCOOLER
The 800-pound hawk in the room. The American response to the Syrian attack coincides with Trump’s new national security adviser John Bolton’s first week on the job. Bolton, a well-known foreign policy hawk who has advocated using military force against North Korea and Iran, could be an influential voice when it comes to the scale of the American response in Syria.