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What You Need to Know About Syria Today

Anwar Amro/AFP/Getty Images

This article was originally published on To sign-up for SyriaDeeply's daily newsletter, visit

U.N. Releases Chemical Weapons Report, Both Sides Spin their Narrative. Evidence collected by U.N. inspectors confirmed a sarin gas attack on the Damascus suburb of Al Ghouta on August 21, with grim details.

 “The report makes for chilling reading,” Mr. Ban told a news conference after he briefed the Security Council. ”The findings are beyond doubt and beyond the pale. This is a war crime.”

The interpretation of blame depends, literally, on where you stand in the world. The New York Times reports that forensic details in the report point to government use of sarin gas, implicating Bashar al-Assad in the attackThe Washington Post lays out both sides of the argument. The French see Assad’s culpability with little doubt.  Western officials said the report adds powerful evidence to their view.

Assad’s allies saw the report as a wash, picking out the parts that exonerate the regime.

“UN Chem Attack Report Doesn’t Show Whodunit,” read the headline in state-owned Russia Today. The U.N. evidence offers no “bulletproof data or conclusions” on who ordered the attack, said Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s ambassador to the U.N. “Syria CW attack scene may have been manipulated,” said Iran’s PressTV, citing elements of the report. Even Germany’s Deutsche Welle says that many questions, “including who is to blame, remain unanswered.”

Why does that matter? Because each side is sticking to its diplomatic story, effectively neutralizing the impact of the U.N report. It would prove more significant if the report prompts series U.N. action in the coming weeks, like a referral of Syria to the International Criminal Court (that’s what Human Rights Watch is urging). But few are holding their breath for any bold moves.

Now, About Enforcement – A Complex Reaction to a Chemical Crime. With the prospect of a U.S. strike on hold, the strongest response on the table is a U.N. resolution by the U.S. and its allies, threatening to punish President Bashar al-Assad. They’re calibrating a fine line, trying to land on a stuff measure, without going so far that it angers Russia (Assad’s primary patron at the U.N). Russia has already said any resolution won’t allow the use of force.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the U.S., France, and Britain “vaguely described economic sanctions and other penalties that could be enforced against Damascus under a binding Chapter 7 resolution at the Security Council,” but made “no mention of the approval of military action.” The U.N. Security Council will hold negotiations this week, according to AFP.

Making Peace Out of Chemical War, Where Assad Stands. Despite the proud rhetoric from Damascus, claiming victory over the  U.S., backers of Bashar al-Assad are split on whether he’s been helped or hurt by the chemical weapons deal.

In one argument, Assad has lost some major chips by giving up his chemical arsenal. “Faced with a possible U.S. military strike, Mr. Assad’s regime bowed to pressure from its two main allies, Iran and Russia, and agreed to relinquish its chemical-weapons arsenal, long regarded as a critical deterrent against Israel,” wrote Sam Dagher at the Wall Street Journal.

On the plus side for the Syrian President, he avoided a U.S. military strike and can press on against rebel forces and civilian areas, hoping to gain ground through superior air power and conventional weapons.  Hezbollah has renewed its pledge to keep supporting Assad on the ground.

Analysts say say the deal also creates a Western incentive to keep Assad in power to follow through with the deal, which is set to elapse in 2014 – at which point Assad may run to renew his mandate in Syrian elections.

With that backdrop, U.N. Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi is pushing peace talks, hoping that the U.S. and Russia will forge a ceasefire (and explicitly recognizing that the Syrian themselves can’t do it alone).  A “managed transition” of power sharing is being called the best-case scenario

“Using the old Lebanese maxim of ‘no victor, no vanquished’, a future Syrian government might include elements of the ruling Assad regime and some of those groups challenging it,” wrote Michael Kerr, a scholar on the Levant. That’s if the Syrians now at war would accept it.

Suggested Reads from Our Editorial Team:

AFP: Damascus Clubbers Dance On, In Bid to Forget War Outside

LA Times: In Syria’s Capital War Surrounds Citizens Living in a Bubble

TIME: Downed Syrian Helicopter Highlights Dangers of Volatile Turkish-Syria Border

Reuters: In Public Shift, Israel Calls for Assad’s Fall

AP: Why is France Pushing So Hard on Syria?

Daily Star: Islamists Rebels Execute Alawites in Raqqa

Stratfor: Strategy, Ideology, and the Close of the Syrian Crisis

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