World Reacts To Alleged Syrian Chemical Attack Opposition groups have accused the Syrian government of using chemical weapons earlier this week against civilians in a suburb of Damascus. Syrian President Bashar Assad denies the claims and has agreed to allow U.N. inspectors to investigate. Meanwhile, President Obama and others in Washington are weighing different response options.

World Reacts To Alleged Syrian Chemical Attack

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It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

Coming up, a look at the minority Christian population in the Middle East. But first, this week, video out of Syria showed shocking images of civilians, many of them women and children, choking and convulsing on the floor of a hospital near Damascus. The opposition called it the evidence of a chemical attack.

The international aid group Doctors Without Borders issued a statement saying that more than 3,600 patients displayed symptoms strongly indicating mass exposure to a neurotoxic agent. Today, the Syrian government, which has denied the allegations, says it will allow U.N. inspectors access to the area of the alleged attack.

For more on that and what all this means for the U.S., we're joined by NPR's White House correspondent Ari Shapiro. Ari, welcome to the program.


LYDEN: Ari, a year ago, as you know, the president had said that the use of chemical weapons would be a redline that would change his calculus. I'm quoting. What's the thinking now?

SHAPIRO: Well, that redline was crossed before now. There were small-scale weapons attacks that prompted the U.S. to say it would send small arms to the rebels. That did not appear to change the balance of the war at all. But this attack is obviously a much larger scale. Here's part of what President Obama said on CNN just a few days ago.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: There is no doubt that when you start seeing chemical weapons used on a large scale - and again, we're still gathering information about this particular event, but it is very troublesome...

CHRIS CUOMO: There's strong proof they used them already, though, in the past.

OBAMA: ...then that starts getting to some core national interests that the United States has.

SHAPIRO: Core national interests in preventing people like Bashar al-Assad from using chemical weapons on a large scale. But he went on to say the U.S. also has core national interests in not getting pulled into costly divisive wars that may not have clear, easy outcomes.

LYDEN: So what options does the United States and the international community have now?

SHAPIRO: Well, that phrase international community is important. President Obama spoke with the leaders of Great Britain and France this weekend about what the international response might be. But countries like Russia do not support the U.S. position on this, which makes the kind of unified international response that we saw in Libya very difficult. It's what's made this whole situation so difficult in some ways.

So domestically, the Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel today said that he has presented all military options to the White House. So there appears to be a growing sense that something needs to happen in response to this alleged chemical attack.

Here was Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee this morning on "Fox News Sunday."


SENATOR BOB CORKER: And I think we will respond in a surgical way, and I hope the president, as soon as we get back to Washington, will ask for authorization from Congress to do something in a very surgical and proportional way, something that gets their attention that causes them to understand that we are not going to put up with this kind of activity.

LYDEN: Ari, as horrific as chemical weapons attacks are, is there a sense that the American public is prepared for another military engagement in the Middle East?

SHAPIRO: Well, that's just it. President Obama came to office as a guy who ends wars in Iraq, in Afghanistan. And that was a reflection of U.S. public opinion that after a decade of these long, costly, to some extent unproductive wars in the Middle East, this is a country that is not prepared for another long drawn-out conflict. And so we've heard the president's aides saying things like boots on the ground are very unlikely in Syria.

Also, it's unclear in Syria who the good guys are. The president and his aides have said very clearly that Bashar al-Assad must go. It's unclear that the U.S. will like the people who could potentially take his place.

So that word that you heard Republican Senator Bob Corker use, surgical, is probably going to come up a lot more when you look at what kind of a military response the U.S. might stage in response to this, if any military response at all.

LYDEN: NPR's Ari Shapiro. Thank you so much, Ari.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome.

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