Secretary of State John Kerry made a forceful case Friday for U.S. intervention in Syria, but stopped short of announcing detailed plans of attack.
Kerry said the U.S. knows with “high confidence” that the regime of Syrian president Bashar al Assad launched last week’s chemical weapon attacks in a Damascus suburb, calling the attacks “a crime against humanity.” Kerry called Assad "a thug and a murderer."
Speaking from the State Department, Kerry described the government’s unclassified assessment of the issue, released by the White House Friday morning, claiming the Syrian government used nerve gas in last week’s attack.
He said the U.S. government knows that at least 1,429 people, including 426 children, were killed in the attack. And he said the U.S. knows that Assad's regime has use chemical weapons "multiple times" this year.
Kerry said the U.S. intelligence assessment was based on evidence collected from thousands of sources, and that it was reached by officials “mindful of the Iraq experience.” Former President George Bush went to war in 2003 against Iraq based on intelligence that later proved to be wrong.
Describing the gruesome images of attack victims that have reverberated online this week, Kerry denounced “the indiscriminate, inconceivable horror of chemical weapons,” adding: “This is what Assad did to his own people.”
Kerry argued that a failure to respond to the attacks would badly diminish America’s credibility and embolden its enemies. “A lot of other countries whose policies challenge these international norms are watching.” He specifically noted Iran, Hezbollah, and North Korea.
“Our concern is about choices that will directly affect our role in the world and our interests in the world,” Kerry added, warning that if the U.S. stands by, "there will be no end to the test of our resolve and the dangers that will flow from those others who believe that they can do as they will."
Kerry also argued that doing nothing would endanger U.S. allies in the region, mentioning Israel, Jordan, and Turkey. "It matters to all of them where the Syrian chemical weapons are," he said, adding: "If unchecked, they can cause even greater death and destruction to those friends."
Strongly hinting that Americans should prepare for conflict again in the Middle East, Kerry said he knew “the American people are tired of war.” But, he added, “fatigue does not absolve us of our responsibility.”
On Thursday, Britain’s parliament voted against military action, and congressional Republicans have expressed deep skepticism about the idea. That has left President Obama appearing isolated as he works to rally support for intervention. But Kerry pushed back against the growing notion that Obama would be acting alone, noting that the Arab League, Turkey, France, and Australia have all pledged support.
Addressing concerns that U.N. inspectors are still working on the ground in Syria to verify a chemical weapons attack, Kerry said “the U.N. can’t tell us anything we haven’t shared with you or we don’t already know.” He pointed to “Russian obstructionism” at the U.N. as making it almost impossible to win Security Council backing for an international strike against Assad.
Kerry also noted that President Obama has made clear that any military engagement would be limited. "He has said very clearly that whatever decision he makes in Syria, it will bear no resemblance to Afghanistan, Iraq or even Libya," Kerry said. "It will not involve any boots on the ground. It will not be open-ended."
For months, Kerry has been working on a diplomatic strategy aimed at easing Assad from power. But the effort has appeared to make little progress amid a lack of cooperation from Russia. But on Friday he said that strategy remains in place.
"We believe it's the primary objective is to have a diplomatic process that can resolve this through negotiation because we know there is no ultimate military solution," Kerry said. "It has to be political. It has to happen at the negotiating table. And we are deeply committed to getting there."
The airstrikes being contemplated by the Obama administration would likely do little to end the Syrian conflict, which has claimed over 100,000 lives, or oust Assad. But they would be intended to demonstrate that there’s a cost for crossing the “red line” that Obama established last year against the use of chemical weapons. In an interview with PBS Wednesday, Obama characterized the potential strikes as a “shot across the bow.”