Kerry Asserts Syrian Regime Used Chemical Weapons, Says Assad Must Be Held Accountable

Meanwhile, Russia’s foreign minister says there is no proof, and urges the U.S. to show restraint.

National Journal
Matt Vasilogambros and Brian Resnick
Matt Vasilogambros Brian Resnick
Aug. 26, 2013, 11:50 a.m.

Five days after an at­tack that claimed the lives of hun­dreds of ci­vil­ians in a Dam­as­cus sub­urb, the United States is de­clar­ing that the As­sad re­gime did in­deed use chem­ic­al weapons against Syr­i­an ci­vil­ians.

Though United Na­tions in­spect­ors have not been able to in­vest­ig­ate the at­tack in full, U.S. of­fi­cials seem to have enough in­form­a­tion to con­firm re­spons­ib­il­ity and the weapon used in the at­tack that killed 355 people, ac­cord­ing to Doc­tors Without Bor­ders.

Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry was the first ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial to speak openly about the at­tack since Pres­id­ent Obama and his top na­tion­al se­cur­ity ad­visers met in an emer­gency ses­sion Sat­urday. Speak­ing from the State De­part­ment on Monday, Kerry said the As­sad re­gime’s sus­pec­ted chem­ic­al-weapons use last week “de­fies any code of mor­al­ity.”

“The in­dis­crim­in­ate slaughter of ci­vil­ians, the killing of wo­men and chil­dren and in­no­cent bystand­ers by chem­ic­al weapons is a mor­al ob­scen­ity,” Kerry told re­port­ers. “By any stand­ard it is in­ex­cus­able, and des­pite the ex­cuses and equi­voc­a­tions that some have man­u­fac­tured, it is un­deni­able.”

Now, the ques­tion shifts from wheth­er the U.S. will use force against the As­sad re­gime to when it will use force. In­deed, the U.S. is in talks with its al­lies, in­clud­ing France and the U.K., on what sort of force it will use. Ac­cord­ing to sev­er­al re­ports, a cruise-mis­sile launch from the sea is the lead­ing op­tion. Whatever Wash­ing­ton de­cides, it is clear that the U.S. will act, at least ac­cord­ing to Kerry.

“Pres­id­ent Obama be­lieves there must be ac­count­ab­il­ity for those who would use the world’s most hein­ous weapons against the world’s most vul­ner­able people,” Kerry said. “Noth­ing today is more ser­i­ous, and noth­ing is re­ceiv­ing more ser­i­ous scru­tiny.”

Such force does not need con­gres­sion­al ap­prov­al, but some law­makers have called on the White House to con­sult with Con­gress be­fore tak­ing any ac­tion. And with Con­gress on its ex­ten­ded va­ca­tion cur­rently, it’s un­likely con­gres­sion­al lead­ers could get something passed. Nor, however, would con­gres­sion­al au­thor­iz­a­tion be easy to come by. In 1991, con­gres­sion­al au­thor­iz­a­tion for the U.S. to in­vade Kuwait to chase Sad­dam Hus­sein out of the oil-rich na­tion passed with only 52 per­cent.

Kerry said the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion would con­sult with con­gres­sion­al lead­ers in the com­ing days. Over the week­end, sev­er­al law­makers on both sides of the aisle said they were open to tak­ing ac­tion in Syr­ia.

In his re­marks, Kerry ref­er­enced videos that showed people con­vulsing, strug­gling to breath, foam­ing at the mouth. These im­ages, he said, show “hu­man suf­fer­ing that we can nev­er ig­nore or for­get.”

“Any­one who could claim that an at­tack of this stag­ger­ing scale could be con­trived or fab­ric­ated needs to check their con­science and their com­pass,” Kerry con­tin­ued. “What is be­fore us today is real, and it is com­pel­ling.”

Right now, U.N. sci­ent­ists are on the ground at­tempt­ing to in­vest­ig­ate this latest at­tack. But with the per­sist­ent shelling by the As­sad re­gime on the area, it will be dif­fi­cult to find con­clus­ive evid­ence.

“That is not the be­ha­vi­or of a gov­ern­ment that has noth­ing to hide,” Kerry said. “That is not the ac­tion of a re­gime eager to prove to the world that it had not used chem­ic­al weapons. In fact, the re­gime’s be­lated de­cision to al­low ac­cess is too little and too late to be cred­ible.”

On Monday morn­ing, the U.N. said in­vest­ig­at­ors were un­der sniper fire. Their vehicles were re­placed and they went back to work later in the day.

In a press con­fer­ence that can be seen as the mir­ror op­pos­ite of Kerry’s, Sergei Lav­rov, the Rus­si­an for­eign min­is­ter, on Monday urged re­straint on part of the United States, say­ing there is no evid­ence to con­firm that the chem­ic­al at­tack happened or if it happened by the dir­ec­tion of the As­sad re­gime. As The Wash­ing­ton Post re­ports, he said if the United States and its NATO al­lies at­tack without a U.N. sanc­tion, it would amount to a “severe vi­ol­a­tion of in­ter­na­tion­al law.”

While Kerry was speak­ing of the As­sad re­gime’s “mor­al ob­scen­ity” and threw out ac­cus­a­tions of a cov­er-up, Lav­rov’s out­rage was fo­cused west­ward. “Of­fi­cial Wash­ing­ton, Lon­don, and Par­is say they have in­con­tro­vert­ible evid­ence that the Syr­i­an gov­ern­ment is be­hind the chem­ic­al at­tack in Dam­as­cus, but they have not yet presen­ted this evid­ence,” Lav­rov said, as tran­scribed by the Rus­si­an news out­let RT. “Yet, they keep say­ing that the ‘red line’ has been crossed.”

He also re­peated a sim­il­ar state­ment to Brit­ish Prime Min­is­ter Dav­id Camer­on over a phone call. While on the call, “they both re­it­er­ated the po­s­i­tion agreed by all lead­ers at the G-8 in June: No one should use chem­ic­al weapons and any use would mer­it a ser­i­ous re­sponse from the in­ter­na­tion­al com­munity,” ac­cord­ing to a Down­ing Street press re­lease. But while Camer­on main­tained little doubt of the Syr­i­an lead­er’s guilt, Lav­rov said Rus­si­an Pres­id­ent Putin be­lieves there is little evid­ence.

Any ac­tion by the U.S. and its al­lies, however, will likely hap­pen in the next few days. Any longer, and the win­dow for ac­tion closes.

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