John Kerry repeated one phrase over and over and over again Friday during his stern statement accusing the Assad regime of carrying out a chemical-weapons attack in a Damascus suburb last week: "We know …"
The secretary of State listed a series of what he said were facts in this case, confirmed by intelligence sources and reinforced by a paper the Obama administration released about the attack. And it's for a simple reason. Kerry and President Obama are immensely aware of Iraq and the intelligence mistakes that the Bush administration made in the run-up to the conflict. In fact, Kerry acknowledged as much.
"Our intelligence community has carefully reviewed and re-reviewed information regarding this attack. And I will tell you, it has done so more than mindful of the Iraq experience," Kerry said. "We will not repeat that moment."
The Obama administration briefed congressional leaders with these findings, which Kerry said, "are as clear as they are compelling." Officials say they will continue doing so in the coming days as the president considers a response to the suspected attack.
So, here's the administration's case for action:
The U.S. says it has known about the Syrian chemical-weapons program for several years because of intelligence efforts. Senior administration officials say it is "old, vast, expansive, very well run, tightly commanded, and tightly controlled." And while there are many members who operate in the chemical-weapons apparatus, President Bashar al-Assad is the final "decision-maker" with all attacks.
"He's ultimately in charge of deployment," a U.S. official said Friday. The "overall use and overall program is firmly under his control."
The Assad regime has several types of chemicals in its weapons stockpiles, including mustard, sarin, and VX, and it has used these weapons "on a small scale" in the past year on its own people. To the Syrian government, the U.S. says, chemical weapons are just "one of many tools in its arsenal."
Syrian government forces failed to gain control of several suburbs around the capital city, where opposition forces had strongholds and operational bases.
U.S. officials say that in the days leading up to the attack, Syrian chemical-weapons personnel prepared those weapons near a facility used to mix the chemical agents. On the day of the attack, Aug. 21, "a Syrian regime element prepared for a chemical-weapons attack in the Damascus area, including through the utilization of gas masks," according to the paper.
The attack occurred in an area where opposition forces had taken over or where the Assad regime was attempting to make advances, according to geospacial intelligence and sources on the ground. Those neighborhoods are outlined by a White House map:
In the early hours of last Wednesday, the Syrian government started a barrage of rocket and artillery attacks on these neighborhoods. The firepower came from territory controlled by the Assad regime. About 90 minutes later, the first reports of chemical attacks started flooding in, starting around 2:30 a.m. local time, so starting the wave of social-media reports.
"With our own eyes we have seen the thousands of reports from 11 separate sites in the Damascus suburbs; all of them show and report victims with breathing difficulties, people twitching with spasms, coughing, rapid-beat heartbeats, foaming at the mouth, unconsciousness and death," Kerry said Friday. "And we know it was ordinary Syrian citizens who reported all of these horrors."
These symptoms that Kerry describes are consistent with chemical attacks, which was confirmed by Syrian hospital personnel. Three local hospitals, according to the report, treated about 3,600 patients with those symptoms.
The attack resulted in 1,429 deaths, at least 426 of whom were children, according to different sources cited by the paper. Senior administration officials say this is a preliminary tally that could tragically rise.
Attempting to hide evidence from an eventual investigation from U.N. personnel, the Assad regime shelled the area where the chemical attacks occurred and at a higher frequency—officials say shelling was four times the rate than in the previous 10 days.
Syrian chemical-weapons personnel were also told on that afternoon to "cease operations," according to the Obama administration paper.
This attack, officials argue, broke norms set by the international community in the aftermath of World War I. To preserve this norm and send a message to countries that might contemplate using weapons of mass destruction, such as Iran or North Korea, the U.S. has to act, Kerry said. He continued:
It matters deeply to the credibility in the future interests of the United States of America and our allies. It matters because a lot of other countries whose policies challenge these international norms are watching. They are watching. They want to see whether the United States and our friends mean what we say. It is directly related to our credibility and whether countries still believe the United States, when it says something, they are watching to see if Syria can get away with it because then maybe they, too, can put the world at greater risk.
Will they remember that the Assad regime was stopped from those weapons current or future use, or will they remember that the world stood aside and created impunity?
Kerry said the U.S. couldn't wait or rely on the United Nations, both in terms of the results of its findings (it can't determine who launched the chemical weapons) or in terms of the Security Council (there is "guaranteed Russian obstructionism").
But many Americans have concerns about launching an attack, however limited in scale it might be or however different it might look from the recent operation in Libya. The memory of Iraq is recent, and the U.S. still has troops in Afghanistan. To those citizens, Kerry has a warning:
Fatigue does not absolve us of our responsibility. Just longing for peace does not necessarily bring it about. And history would judge us all extraordinarily harshly if we turned a blind eye to a dictator's wanton use of weapons of mass destruction against all warnings, against all common understanding of decency.