President Barack Obama will address the nation on the Syrian crisis tonight. In the past 24 hours, the nature of the domestic and international debate about a military intervention in Syria has changed significantly. Here is what you need to know ahead of the address.
Q: What is Obama expected to say?
The president is facing one of the most challenging moments of his presidency. When he first announced the speech, he was expected to use the appearance to outline his case for a United States-led military strike against Syria. He hoped to explain why it was necessary to retaliate for a chemical weapons attack that, according to U.S. intelligence, killed more than 1,400 people in Syria, but also to reassure Americans that the result would not be another Iraq war. Since then, much has changed. White House speechwriters have been revising their drafts as a plan put forward by Russia for Syria to relinquish control of its chemical weapons has gained international support. Obama is now expected to say that the threat of military action has led to the diplomatic opening, and to urge Congress to keep the pressure on Syria even as his administration examines whether the Russian proposal is serious or a way to obstruct military action.
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On Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters in London that President Bashar Assad of Syria could avert a strike if he turned over his chemical weapons stockpile within a week, adding that such an outcome was unlikely. Kerry’s staff later described the remark as a “rhetorical exercise,” but by Monday night his apparently off-the-cuff proposal had gained broad support, including a warm welcome from both Syria and Russia, which said it would bring Syria’s chemical weapons under international control. On Tuesday, France said it would propose a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for Syria to allow weapons inspectors to oversee the destruction of its chemical weapons stockpile and to require it to sign the international treaty banning the use of such weapons. But Russia responded that the French resolution was “unacceptable” because it allowed for military enforcement, and said it would propose its own measure.
Q: If the proposal goes forward, does it rule out any future strike?
If the plan succeeded in removing Syria’s chemical weapons from the control of its government, then there would be no need for a strike under Obama’s rationale of seeking to deter the use of such arms. Obama has been reluctant to intervene militarily in Syria’s civil war otherwise.
Q: If Assad relinquished his chemical weapons, how would that change the dynamics of the conflict on the ground in Syria?
While it may remove the threat of a strike by the United States, such a move would be unlikely to change the dynamics of the civil war. Chemical weapons have allowed the Syrian government to instill fear in rebel fighters and residents of the areas under their control, but the Assad government is believed to have resorted infrequently to those weapons during the course of the 2-1/2-year conflict. Their use is not believed to have tipped the scales of any of the major battles so far, and by most estimates the number of people who have been killed by chemical weapons amounts to less than 2 percent of the more than 100,000 who have died in the war. The vast majority of those deaths have been caused by conventional weapons — including artillery, missiles and firearms — that continue to be used daily.
Q: What chemical weapons is Assad believed to have?
Intelligence estimates by the United States and its allies suggest that Syria may possess one of the world’s largest stockpiles of chemical weapons. According to a French intelligence estimate released on Sept. 3, Syria is believed to possess “several hundred tons of sulfur mustard” as well as “tens of tons of VX” and “several hundred tons of sarin,” all powerful chemical agents. All are believed to be in the possession of Unit 450, an elite and secretive air force division that is deeply loyal to the Assad family. The current debate over intervention in Syria began after what the United States says was a sarin attack in the Ghouta region, east of Damascus, on Aug. 21. In briefings with lawmakers, American officials have said that they believe Syria has so far used sarin exclusively in all of its chemical attacks.
Q: Is there anything Obama could say that would convince the American public of the need for military action in Syria?
Providing additional evidence that Assad used chemical weapons or details of the plight of the Syrian people are not likely to shift public opinion. Most Americans already believe that Assad’s forces probably used chemical weapons against civilians, but are opposed to a military strike on Syria, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll.
The poll does suggest that Obama might have some impact if he more clearly explained how a strike would benefit the United States; nearly 80 percent of those polled said the Obama administration had not outlined its objectives in Syria.
Q: When is Congress likely to vote on authorization to order a military strike against the Syrian government?
The decision on Monday by Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, to delay the filing of a first procedural step is likely to put off a vote on a Syria resolution until next week, if not indefinitely. Reid had intended to move to cut off debate on a motion to proceed formally to consider the resolution. That would have set up the first procedural vote for Wednesday morning and a critical test on Friday to at least see if the Senate could overcome a threatened filibuster. But a Russian proposal to place Syria’s chemical weapons under international control, a visit to the Senate on Tuesday by Obama and a full-Senate classified briefing planned for Wednesday convinced Democratic leaders that the move was premature. Senate leaders will likely take their cue now from the White House on whether to proceed with a resolution debate and vote or whether to give diplomacy more time. Meanwhile, a bipartisan group drafting an alternative congressional resolution said its plan would give the United Nations time to take control of the Syrian government’s arsenal of the internationally banned weapons.
Q: Is it possible for Obama to order a strike without congressional approval?
Several presidents, including Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and even Obama, have ordered limited military actions without congressional approval, and Obama maintains that he has the authority to go forward in this instance as well. But having asked Congress for authorization, the president’s aides consider it highly improbable that he would order an attack if either chamber votes against it.
Q: The fighting in Syria has created a major humanitarian crisis. How can people help?
There are a large number of charities helping Syrians who have fled to other countries. A smaller number are working inside Syria. Doctors Without Borders has been operating several field hospitals within Syria. To donate to its Syrian efforts directly, call 1-888-392-0392. The World Food Program has been airlifting food to families within Syria; Hand in Hand for Syria, a charity registered in Britain, has a field office in Lebanon but also delivers supplies to families in Syria. Mercy USA has been working to provide aid to individuals in Syria as well as refugees in Turkey and Lebanon.