US Secretary of State John Kerry speaks about the situation in Syria on Aug. 30, 2013. Kerry declared Friday that international failure to take military action against Syria over its chemical weapons attacks would embolden Iran and Hezbollah. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — In delivering a full-throated call to take action against the Assad regime in Syria in after the alleged August 21 chemical weapons attack against civilians near Damascus, Secretary of State John Kerry made clear that any military action would be just as much about deterring other adversaries as it would be against Syria.
“This matters also beyond the limits of Syria’s borders,” he said. “It is about whether Iran, which itself has been a victim of chemical weapons’ attacks, will now feel emboldened in the absence of action to obtain nuclear weapons.”
He also singled out Hezbollah and North Korea “and every other terrorist group or dictator that might ever again contemplate the use of weapons of mass destruction.” Kerry said that to send a strong message to the Assad regime in Damascus ensure that the rest of the world would remember that the use of chemical or nuclear weapons would meet with a harsh response from the international community.
“Our concern is not just about some far-off land oceans away,” he said, “our concern with the cause of the defenseless people of Syria is about choices that will directly affect our role in the world and our interests in the world.”
The Secretary’s comments came just as the White House released a four-page document outlining in somewhat vague terms its case against the Syrian regime.
The report states that “satellite detection” confirms that rockets fired from regime-controlled areas hit the neighborhoods that opposition forces say were victimized by a chemical weapons. The intelligence detected rocket launches from regime controlled territory “approximately 90 minutes before the first report of a chemical attack appeared in social media. The lack of flight activity or missile launches also leads us to conclude that the regime used rockets in the attack,” the reported said.
Hospitals in Damascus received about 3,600 patients in the hours after the attack, and over 1,400 civilians eventually died from symptoms similar to what would happen after being exposed to a nerve agent. Over 400 of those victims were children.
The White House also said that it US had intercepted communications between what it called a “senior official intimately familiar with the offensive who confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime on August 21.”
Intelligence obtained by the US also purports to show that Syrian chemical weapons troops had been on the group in the targeted neighborhoods “making preparations,” according to Kerry, and that some in the regime were ordered to put on gas masks prior to the attack.
US intel also showed that at one point during the day of the attack, Syrian chemical weapons personnel were ordered to cease operations while the Syrian military launched an intense artillery barrage against the targeted neighborhoods. In the 24 hour period after the attack, “we detected indications of artillery and rocket fire at a rate approximately four times higher than the ten preceding days,” the US government said.
Kerry also took a shot at Russia during his remarks, complaining that “because of the guaranteed Russian obstructionism of any action through the UN Security Council, the UN cannot galvanize the world to act as it should.”
Senior White House officials, like the secretary, were very much still very much selling a Syria strike — four days into their public march to war — when they briefed reporters via teleconference minutes after Kerry’s remarks.
The senior officials repeatedly cited the US intelligence community’s assessment that Assad ordered the Aug. 21 chemical attack, calling the claim “undeniable.”
“We have a high level of confidence that this was a commanded operation,” one White House official said.
“We assess that [Assad is] the decision-maker, and he’s ultimately in charge of the military,” one of the senior White House officials told reporters. “I can just say with confidence that we assess that overall use” of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal “is firmly under his control.”
The senior officials’ comments and the unclassified intelligence assessment the White House released clearly were aimed at hanging responsibility for the Aug. 21 attack squarely around the neck of the embattled Assad.
“Our high confidence assessment is the strongest position that the U.S. intelligence community can take short of confirmation,” states the intel assessment.
The senior officials, in a rare move, discussed the kinds of intelligence-gathering systems and methods used in determining a chemical attack occurred, and that Assad likely ordered it.
The White House broadly described how intelligence officials used an “all-source” approach, by examining human intelligence, geospatial intelligence, and signals intelligence. They also looked at information gathered and disseminated by non-governmental organizations, and posted on social media sites by a range of individuals on the ground in Syria.
Repeatedly during the call with reporters, the senior officials stressed a key finding of unclassified document: That there is ample “intelligence pertaining to the regime’s preparations for this attack and its means of delivery, multiple streams of intelligence about the attack itself and its effect ... and the differences between the capabilities of the regime and the opposition.”
The White House on Friday turned, in part, to a time-tested tactic in global affairs by casting Assad as a monster who turned deadly gas shunned by the international community on his own people.
“We have intelligence that leads us to assess that Syrian chemical weapons personnel — including personnel assessed to be associated with the SSRC — were preparing chemical munitions prior to the attack,” states the intel assessment. “In the three days prior to the attack, we collected streams of human, signals and geospatial intelligence that reveal regime activities that we assess were associated with preparations for a chemical weapons attack.”
The Assad-as-monster pitch also included the senior officials’ acknowledging that they knew his regime had used chemical weapons in the past.
“What’s different is the scale of the attack,” one of the senior officials said. “We’re talking 12 different locations. We’re talking rockets. ... There’s simply no question that a significant attack was initiated in a regime-controlled area ... and [gas-carrying rockets] went into opposition-controlled areas.”
It remains unclear whether the White House’s Friday war pitch will be enough to convince a skeptical nation and Congress to go to war in another Middle East nation.
Several polls showed more than 70 percent of Americans surveyed oppose a Syria mission. And an increasing number of lawmakers — Republican and from Obama’s own Democratic Party — want a chance to debate and vote on a Syria operation.
One skeptic is House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., who supports limited strikes but wants more information from Obama and his top aides.
“[Two] things we did not hear from Secretary Kerry,” McKeon tweeted Friday afternoon. “(1) What is our military objective? (2) What legal justification is the Administration using?”
Russian Ambassador to the UK Alexander Yakovenko wrote in a statement to the Russian state-run news agency RIA Novosti that “no reliable and persuasive evidence has been produced to confirm that chemical weapons have been used, let alone who did it. Neither have we seen clear legal grounds for military action.”
Yakovenko called into question claims that the Assad regime used the weapons, echoing earlier Russian statements that the rebel groups fighting Assad may actually be to blame. He also took a shot at the recent American and NATO experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, writing, “after disastrous interventions in Iraq without consent of the UN Security Council, and then in Libya, with UN [Security Council] mandate abused, where they effectively failed to assist bringing stability and establishing interreligious and interethnic peace, they are now repeating the same scenario.”