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After Apparent Chemical Attack In Syria, U.S. Considers Military Action


There is a big question looming this week - is the U.S. going to take military action in Syria? President Trump has seemed to indicate that it is a strong possibility, and then late last night, the European air traffic control agency Eurocontrol warned airlines flying in the eastern Mediterranean to be aware of the possibility of airstrikes within the next 72 hours. Now, this all comes after what is thought to be a chemical attack in Syria over the weekend. Dozens of people, including women and children, were killed. We're on the line now with NPR's Ruth Sherlock. She's been monitoring the story from Beirut. Hey, Ruth.


KING: So first of all, is there more clarity on what happened in Douma this past weekend?

SHERLOCK: Well, look, the facts still very much need to be established. You've seen this very horrifying video footage of children, women and men killed in what seems to be a chemical attack of some kind. But the question was, you know, what kind of chemical agent might have been used? Could it have been chlorine gas, which has been used dozens, possibly more, times in Syria, or whether it involved some kind of nerve agent? And remember, it was the use of sarin gas one year ago that triggered the administration - the U.S. administration to take action.

So Russia and the Assad government deny responsibility, and Russia has even indicated that the claims of the chemical attack might be a hoax, and they're signaling very, very strongly that they're against any kind of intervention. They're saying they don't want countries to do anything that would destabilize an already fragile situation in the Middle East. And the Kremlin has been calling for an impartial investigation. In fact, they've actually invited the U.N. chemical weapons watchdog to now go in for an investigation.

KING: All right. So U.N. chemical weapons investigators are just going to go inside Douma. Is that an easy thing to do?

SHERLOCK: Well, no, and what makes their job so hard now is that the situation in Douma is chaotic. You've got - all this is happening to the backdrop of a major shift in the Syrian civil war. So just after the chemical attack happened, the last rebel group that controls Douma - that's the last rebel group in this massive, sprawling suburbs of eastern Ghouta near Damascus - surrendered, and now there are these massive evacuations happening where some rebel groups and their families are going to another rebel-held part of Syria in the north of the country. It's really dramatic images coming out of there with Syrian soldiers that were held by this group being released. They're gaunt and pallid. Families say many, many are still missing. They don't know what's happened to them.

And in the middle of all this, the Syrian government has moved into the area. So all this change to an area where investigators now have to go in and try to maybe take samples, maybe try to establish the facts of what happened, you know, all this change makes that much more difficult to do.

KING: Is there a sense that this Syrian government - that people in Damascus are doing anything in anticipation of a potential U.S. government strike?

SHERLOCK: Well, people you talk to in Damascus say that the atmosphere is extremely tense. One person said you can cut it with a knife. So the Syrian government itself is thought to be taking action. They're not just standing idly by waiting for a possible attack. In fact, they are said to be moving planes, hiding weapons, trying to move them to more secure locations, probably - presumably, perhaps, away from military bases or places they might get hit. Air defenses are on high alert, and Russia also has a heavy presence in Syria. And they've threatened - they've been very clear. They're saying there would be an immediate response should any strike harm their troops or military bases in Syria. Residents - yeah, and as I say, residents at the moment are saying they can't sleep, waiting to watch what's happened - what's going to happen.

KING: Wow. Ruth, in the couple of seconds we have left...


KING: ...This is not the first time that chemical weapons have been used in Syria. So there's a big, you know, why now question, isn't there?

SHERLOCK: There absolutely is, and, you know, the - this chemical attack is going to be - the strength of this is going to be determined by the OPCW, this chemical weapons watchdog. But many Syrians are asking the same question - why now? They're seeing more people die perhaps on a near-daily basis from barrel bombs and airstrikes and other artillery. And so whilst the videos are terrible and shocking in Washington, they're not shocking for Syrians here.

KING: NPR's Ruth Sherlock, thanks so much.

SHERLOCK: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.