Secretary of State John Kerry argued Friday that Syrian strongman Bashar Assad was guilty of a “crime against humanity” as he built the most detailed U.S. case yet that the Damascus regime unleashed a devastating chemical weapons attack on its own people last week.
Amid talk of looming U.S. military strikes that could happen at any time, Kerry vowed that the United States reserved the right to act alone if necessary and warned the war-weary American public that the time for dithering is past.
“We know that after a decade of conflict, the American people are tired of war. Believe me, I am too,” he said. “But fatigue does not absolve us of our responsibility. Just longing for peace does not necessarily bring it about. And history will judge us all extraordinarily harshly if we turned a blind eye."
President Barack Obama, speaking at the White House shortly after Kerry’s remarks, said he had not yet made a decision but was weighing a “limited, narrow act.”
"We're not considering any open-ended commitment. We're not considering any boots-on-the-ground approach," the president told reporters as he met with Baltic leaders.
Even as Kerry spoke, the White House released a four-page declassified intelligence finding that U.S. spy agencies have "high confidence" Assad's regime was to blame for the devastating attack that left 1,429 people dead.
Read the U.S. government assessment of the chemical weapons attack in Syria
In a 19-minute address from the State Department, Kerry gave no hint of a timetable for American action.
“Let me be clear: We will continue talking to the Congress, talking to our allies and, most importantly, talking to the American people,” he said. “President Obama will ensure that the United State of America makes our own decisions on our own timelines, based on our values and our interests.”
The top diplomat spoke after Obama met at the White House with his national security team to discuss the pending American response. The president and his top aides have said there is no doubt that Bashar Assad's regime was behind an alleged chemical weapons attack on Aug. 21.
The White House has built a logical case that the Assad regime was to blame, arguing that it had the known stockpiles, the rockets to deliver the chemical shells and the motive to target opposition populations.
But a British intelligence memorandum made public this week cast doubt on the supposedly ironclad case.
And, until Friday, the White House had not directly addressed other possibilities, like an accidental launch. Or launch by a rogue Syrian military officer. Or a conventional shell striking a chemical weapons cache (depending on the substance). Or launch by a third party, like forces fighting for Assad but answering to Iran.
“The United States government now knows that at least 1,429 Syrians were killed in this attack, including at least 426 children,” Kerry declared.
“We know that for three days before the attack, the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons personnel were on the ground in the area, making preparations,” he said.
“And we know that the Syrian regime elements were told to prepare for the attack by putting on gas masks and taking precautions associated with chemical weapons. We know that these were specific instructions,” he added.
“We know where the rockets were launched from, and at what time. We know where they landed, and when. We know rockets came only from regime-controlled areas and went only to opposition-controlled or contested neighborhoods,” he said.
The intelligence assessment made no mention of information, previously published in news reports, that cast doubt on the claim of a centrally ordered chemical weapons strike.
Kerry promised that, in looking to punish “this crime against conscience, this crime against humanity,” America was mindful of the errors leading up to the war in Iraq.
“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,” he said. “We will not repeat that moment.”
Obama’s response “will bear no resemblance to Afghanistan, Iraq or even Libya,” Kerry pledged. “It will not involve any boots on the ground. It will not be open-ended. And it will not assume responsibility for a civil war that is already well underway.”
Instead, the president will take a “limited and tailored” approach “to ensure that a despot’s brutal and flagrant use of chemical weapons is held accountable.”
Obama said in a CNN interview broadcast one week ago that if he fails to secure a United Nations mandate for military action, “then there are questions in terms of whether international law supports it."
Kerry pointed to the Chemical Weapons Convention (which Syria has not signed) but otherwise made no reference to an international legal framework to justify a possible attack.
And he argued that Russian obstruction at the United Nations Security Council meant that the administration could not use that avenue to rally support for action against Syria.
The administration’s case for war has rested largely on a handful of arguments:
1) Failure to act will embolden Assad to use chemical weapons again.
2) He could threaten key allies and partners like Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Israel.
3) Obama had called the use of chemical weapons a “red line” and would lose credibility in standoffs with countries such as Iran and North Korea if he does not follow through here.
But it has done relatively little to address worries that strikes at Syria could lead Assad either to escalate attacks on his own people or target Israel, or could accidentally release chemical weapons .
And public opinion polls show the U.S. public does not favor military intervention without explicit congressional authorization.
Kerry’s presentation did nothing to dull Republican House Speaker John Boehner’s skepticism. Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck said, “We — and the American people — look forward to more answers from the White House.”
“If the president believes this information makes a military response imperative, it is his responsibility to explain to Congress and the American people the objectives, strategy, and legal basis for any potential action,” Buck said in a statement.