WASHINGTON -- Pledging a stand against the “indiscriminate, inconceivable horror of chemical weapons,” Secretary of State John Kerry on Friday laid out the Obama administration’s case for a military intervention in Syria based on intelligence that says the Syrian regime gassed civilians multiple times in defiance of international norms.
Kerry’s remarks, along with statements from President Barack Obama later in the day, left little doubt that a U.S. missile strike against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime was imminent, even without American popular support, backup from close ally Britain or the approval of the United Nations. The administration’s isolation in calling for speedy punitive action in Syria reflects the legacy of faulty intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war. Nations are reluctant to sign up for another U.S.-led intervention when questions remain about details of the alleged chemical attack, as well as about potential fallout from a U.S. strike in an already volatile region.
Kerry said that history would judge inaction on Syria harshly and insisted the U.S. wasn’t alone in its call for an international response, noting words of support from the Arab League, France and Australia.
“This matters to us, and it matters to who we are, and it matters to leadership and to our credibility in the world,” Kerry said.
Although they gave no timing or other details of an attack, Obama and Kerry argued that the United States had a duty to respond and was considering a “limited, narrow act” to serve as a warning message not only to Assad but to North Korea, Iran, Hezbollah and any other U.S. foes that might be tempted to use chemical weapons.
In acknowledgment of the deep misgivings of Americans about a military strike, the administration stressed that any intervention would “bear no resemblance” to the long-term wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, or yoke the U.S. to the bloody Syrian civil war that’s now well into its third year.
“We’re not considering any open-ended commitment. We’re not considering any boots-on-the-ground approach,” Obama said at the White House. “What we will do is consider options that meet the narrow concern around chemical weapons, understanding that there’s not going to be a solely military solution to the underlying conflict and tragedy that’s taking place in Syria.”
The Obama administration’s case for intervention rests on U.S. intelligence, much of which remains classified and will not be released publicly, that says regime forces made preparations for an Aug. 21 attack in an eastern suburb of Damascus, equipped its forces with gas masks and launched rockets from regime-held areas to 12 separate sites. The intelligence also cites intercepted communications from a senior regime official who’s said to acknowledge the regime’s use of chemical weapons in the Ghouta area and to express concern about being discovered.
In addition, U.S. officials point to dozens of amateur videos and the accounts of medical workers that portray a large-scale attack whose victims suffered symptoms that were consistent with exposure to a chemical agent.
“All of them show and report victims with breathing difficulties, people twitching with spasms, coughing, rapid heartbeats, foaming at the mouth, unconsciousness and death,” Kerry said.