The Obama administration offered on Friday its evidence of “large-scale” use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad through a detailed and impassioned statement by Secretary of State John Kerry. His statement left very little doubt that the US will take action in the coming days to hold the Syrian regime accountable.
Secretary Kerry called on the American people to “read for yourselves” the “verdict of our intelligence community” that chemical weapons were used by the Assad regime on Aug. 21 against a wide swath of Damascus suburbs.
Disclosing higher casualty figures from the attacks than previously cited, Kerry said the US was certain of at least 1,429 Syrians killed in the early-morning attacks – at least 426 of whom he said were children.
But he said the question now is, “What are we and the world going to do about it?”
Insisting that the answer to that question “matters deeply to the credibility and the future interests of the United States,” Kerry said the US could not look the other way as one “brutal despot” crossed the “clear red line against chemical weapons use” that the world has laid down over the past century.
If the US stood by and did nothing, there would be “no end to the testing of our resolve,” Kerry said, and not just in Syria. Offering one example, he said that in the absence of any consequences for Mr. Assad, Iran would be “emboldened ... to obtain nuclear weapons.”
Kerry’s argument for action was the administration’s response to a vocal minority from Congress and a number of prominent US foreign-policy analysts who say the administration has not offered a convincing argument that US national-security interests are at stake in Syria’s civil war or, specifically, as a result of the apparent use of chemical weapons there.
The US has stayed out of the brutal, region-destabilizing civil war that has left more than 100,000 people dead, and some analysts see no reason that chemical weapons use makes US involvement any more compelling.
Some members of Congress, while agreeing with the administration that Assad must not be allowed to use chemical weapons with impunity, say that the intelligence briefings the administration is offering are not enough. They insist that President Obama still must seek congressional authorization before any military action is launched.
"Though consulting with Congress is helpful, it is in no way an adequate substitute for President Obama obtaining statutory authority from Congress prior to the use of military force, as required by the Constitution," said Rep. Scott Rigell (R) of Virginia in a statement issued after Kerry’s comments. As of Friday, Representative Rigell’s letter calling on Mr. Obama to secure congressional authorization had been signed by 140 members of Congress, both Republicans and Democrats.
White House officials maintained Friday afternoon that Obama has not made a decision on launching airstrikes against Syrian military installations in retaliation for the chemical attacks.
In brief comments before a White House meeting Friday with the leaders of Baltic states, the president sought to reassure Americans that any action he decides on will be targeted and of short duration. "We’re not considering any open-ended commitment. We’re not considering any boots-on-the-ground approach,” he said.
But several factors suggest the window for action is narrow and could lead to a short campaign of cruise-missile attacks as early as Sunday.
A United Nations chemical-weapons inspection team finished up its work in Syria Friday and was scheduled to leave the country Saturday. Obama is set to leave Washington Tuesday for Sweden and then a Group of 20 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Sept. 5 and 6.
Kerry insisted in his statement that much of the world stands with the US, “ready to respond” and to “hold Assad responsible” for his actions. In particular, he cited “our oldest allies, the French,” but he also listed the Arab League, Turkey, and Australia.
Noticeably absent from Kerry's list was Britain, where Parliament on Thursday rejected Prime Minister David Cameron's request for provisional authorization to join any international action against Assad.
The intelligence assessment unveiled by Kerry finds with “high confidence” that the Assad regime used chemical weapons against at least 12 locations in the Damascus suburbs on Aug. 21. The assessment claims intelligence revealing that “Syrian chemical weapons personnel” prepared chemical munitions in the three days preceding the attack.
The report cites “intelligence sources” who claim that elements of the Syrian regime prepared for the effects of a chemical attack through utilization of gas masks.
The report also states that the intelligence sources revealed that by the afternoon of Aug. 21, “chemical weapons personnel were directed to cease operations.” This is important, senior administration officials say, because it provides evidence that the attack was commanded by the regime and was not the work of a rogue unit, as some have speculated.
“It mainly provided us additional confidence that this was a commanded operation,” said a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the assessment’s findings.
In answer to the question that many skeptics have posed, concerning why Assad would have ordered a significant chemical attack on Damascus suburbs, the assessment finds a motive in what it says was Assad’s “frustration” in his military’s inability to clear key neighborhoods of the capital area with conventional warfare.
Assad was seeking to dedicate more attention and firepower to a campaign to take back Aleppo, the major northern city, but found that too many resources were bogged down defending the regime’s base in the capital region, the senior administration official said. “They wanted to free up resources that were being kept busy in the Damascus suburbs,” he said.
It remains to be seen whether the four-page intelligence assessment will be enough to convince members of Congress – and what even the administration acknowledges is a war-weary public – of the need for military action.
Kerry spoke to the American public just a day after the British Parliament – still stinging from the experience of the Iraq war and the false claims of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that led to it – took its stance against Syria strikes.
No doubt mindful of that, Kerry insisted that the US is not about to “repeat” the mistake of going to war over faulty intelligence.
But even as he acknowledged the war fatigue evident in polls – “Yes, we’re tired of war: I am, we all are” – he said such understandable feelings do not justify America shirking its global responsibilities.
“Fatigue does not absolve us of our responsibility,” Kerry said. “Just longing for peace does not necessarily bring it about.”