The White House has been working overtime this week, trying to line up votes from skeptical lawmakers for a military strike on Syria. The maneuverings began over the weekend when President Barack Obama asked Congress to approve an attack on Syrian targets, saying it’s the right thing to do after the regime allegedly used chemical weapons against rebel strongholds.
There are so many moving parts to this complicated story that it can become quite difficult to keep up.
As you begin your first day back at work after the long holiday weekend, here’s a Q&A that’ll bring you up to speed on the dizzying developments.
1. Give me a quick recap first. What does the White House want?
The White House stance is this: The Assad regime used chemical weapons in a Damascus suburb last month. That’s against international law, and there has to be consequences. It held a classified briefing Sunday to make its case to about 100 House and Senate members. But one after another, lawmakers emerged supremely unconvinced. So it’s got its work cut out.
2. What happens next?
Congress doesn’t officially come back until September 9. That buys the White House a little time. And it intends to spend the rest of this week trying to win the skeptics over. The White House will hold classified briefings nearly every day this week. The president will meet with House Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on Tuesday. And there are House and Senate committee hearings scheduled.
3. Why do lawmakers need convincing?
Lawmakers agree that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons is a travesty. But they don’t want a repeat of Iraq – which the U.S. invaded based on incorrect claims that Saddam Hussein was hoarding weapons of mass destruction. So, they want the administration to really nail its case. “There will be a real questioning as to the veracity of the evidence and if this really happened or not,” House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon, R-California, told CNN.
4. So, does the U.S. have the proof?
Secretary of State John Kerry told CNN’s “State of the Union” that blood and hair samples taken from medics at the scene of the alleged attack point to the nerve agent sarin. But U.N. inspectors who were on the ground investigating could take three weeks to analyze the evidence they collected. And even then, they’ll only say if there was a chemical attack, not who was behind it.
5. Are there other reasons giving lawmakers pause?
There are almost as many reasons as there are lawmakers. Some say that what Obama’s asking for is too broad. Others want a firm expiration date on American action. Some, like Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, say the United States should act only if there’s a clear threat to its national security. Others, like Democratic Rep. Janice Hahn, want to know how much it’s going to cost taxpayers.
6. Is the White House addressing those concerns?
Yes. Two top Democrats are working to narrow the scope of what Obama asked for. They’ve also said they’ll couple strikes with increased support for the rebels. That seems to have appeased Republican senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who earlier said that airstrikes won’t go far enough.
7. Will Congress come through in the end?
Obama might be able to count on the Senate, where the Democrats hold a slim majority. The question is, will the Republican-dominated House go along? McCain says that if Congress rejects Obama’s call, that would be catastrophic. “It would undermine the credibility of the United States of America and the president of the United States,” McCain said. “None of us want that.”
8. But Obama doesn’t really have to wait for the green light, does he?
Technically, no. The 1973 War Powers Act allows the president to launch military action, but he must notify Congress within 48 hours. But just because he can doesn’t mean he will, he says.
9. Even with Congress’ blessing, is Obama still flouting international law?
The U.N. charter forbids the “use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state” unless it’s in self-defense or with approval from the Security Council. In the case of Syria, neither the United Nations charter nor the Security Council is likely to offer much cover for intervention.
10. Why not just go to the Security Council then?
Because any call to action against Syria will most certainly be vetoed by its two allies, Russia and China – both of whom have veto power.
11. Why are Russia and China against intervention?
Russia says it doesn’t buy the U.S. claim. “When we ask for more detailed evidence, they say, ‘You know, it’s all secret, so we can’t show you,” Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said. “That means that there are no such facts.” China says it’s against anyone taking unilateral action. Each has its reason: Russia’s a big trading partner with Syria. And China had has its own share of international controversies over its policies with Tibet as well as allegations of human rights violations.
12. What about U.S. allies?
France is on board, but has said it won’t act without the United States as a partner. Britain’s hamstrung after its lawmakers voted down Prime Minister David Cameron’s call for intervention. And NATO’s stance is that while the August 21 attack calls for a “firm international response,” it won’t come from the alliance itself. “It is for individual nations to decide how to react,” it says.
13. Who can the U.S. count on?
Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are on board, Kerry says. He expects others to join.
14. What does Syria think about all this?
Al-Assad’s been clear: The Middle East is a powder keg; attack Syria and risk a regional war. “Everyone will lose control of the situation when the powder keg explodes,” he told the French newspaper Le Figaro. His regime has repeatedly said it didn’t use chemical weapons in the August 21 attack. It says jihadists fighting alongside Syrian rebels used them to turn global sentiment against the regime.
15. Can the international community really afford to wait?
Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, says it’s fine to wait. A delay won’t jeopardize a military strike, he told the president, according to officials.
16. What does the Syrian opposition want?
Opposition groups want action – now. And with good reason. There’s been no pause in the killing: 100,000 and climbing. And on Tuesday, the U.N. refugee agency offered up this grim stat: The number of Syrians who’ve fled the country has now risen above 2 million. Put another way, every 15 seconds, a Syrian becomes a refugee.
17. How exactly would the U.S. carry out an attack?
No one is calling for boots on the ground. The United States would use U.S. warships with Tomahawk cruise missiles. The Tomahawk has a range of about 1,000 miles. It can loiter over targets, circling for hours, and can be reprogrammed midflight to change course. Yes, each costs about $1.2 million, but they can be fired from quite a distance. This means no one has to get within range of Syrian fire.
18. What about civilian deaths?
Dempsey says collateral damage from a strike will be low. But lawmakers say there’s no way he could know that.
Could Syria strike back?
Syria has some anti-ship missiles – but they have a range of only 62 to 186 miles, says Edward Hunt, a senior analyst at IHS Jane’s. It also has a number of Scuds and similar surface-to-surface weapons, but these are not designed to be used against moving targets such as U.S. warships, Hunt said.
A U.S. strike against Syria is not imminent. And even though Obama can launch a military attack unilaterally, he’d prefer to have Congress’ approval first.
20. What about U.S. military leaders? What do they think?
They have concerns. Dempsey says that even a limited involvement will probably lead to an extended stay. “Deeper involvement is hard to avoid,” he wrote to Congress over the summer.
CNN’s Matt Smith, Laura Smith-Spark, Jethro Mullen, Elise Labott, Leigh Ann Caldwell, Tom Cohen, Evan Perez, Barbara Starr, Jennifer Rizzo, Dana Bash, David McKenzie, Ashley Killough and Sarah Chiplin contributed to this report.