After a weekend of reports indicating that the U.S. is considering military action as a response to a devastating chemical weapons attack in Syria, Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters on Monday the U.S. is still "consider[ing] our response" to the Syrian crisis, indicating with little doubt that there will, in fact, be one: "This international norm cannot be violated without consequences," he said. Any U.S. response, he added, would be "grounded in facts, informed by conscience, and guided by common sense."
In a forceful speech at the State Department, Kerry made it absolutely clear that the U.S. is certain that a chemical weapons attack took place in Syria last week, and that, based on the evidence, the Assad regime was behind it. Kerry promised that the U.S. would release additional evidence addressing those points in the coming days. The attacks attacks, Kerry said, "def[y] any code of morality," calling the action "a moral obscenity...by any standard, it is inexcusable." He added: "there is a clear reason that the world has banned entirely the use of chemical weapons...there is a reason why President Obama has made it such a priority to stop the proliferation of these weapons."
Speaking about the evidence of the attacks — images and videos of the dead — Kerry said: "I went back and I watched the videos...one more gut wrenching time... it is hard to express in words the human suffering they lay out before us." Addressing Russia, perhaps, Kerry said that anyone denying the attacks could occur needed to "check their moral compass."
So, what does it mean? Kerry didn't address which actions were under consideration by the administration. But observers have some guesses:
Sure sounds like war to me.— Blake Hounshell (@blakehounshell) August 26, 2013
I can't imagine the entirely emotional/moral tenor of Kerry's speech is anything but preparation for an attack. Makes no sense otherwise.— Dan Murphy (@bungdan) August 26, 2013
Yeah, so we're bombing.— michaeldweiss (@michaeldweiss) August 26, 2013
The international community stepped up its rhetoric against Syria last week after what was almost certainly a chemical weapons attack killed hundreds near Damascus. Despite denials from the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, pretty much everyone believes that the attack happened, and that the Assad regime was behind it. Only Russia is buying the Assad regime's story that any alleged attack could have come from the opposition forces in the country. Russia's continued support of the Assad regime has long stalled any possibility of the U.N. Security Council (on which the country has veto power) taking meaningful action against the ongoing Syrian conflict that killed over 100,000 people so far.
As the U.N. attempts to inspect the site of the attacks, western allies of the U.S. seem to be looking for a way to take action against Assad without the support of a United Nations resolution. In fact, the Obama administration has been reportedly feeling pressure to act from the U.K.'s David Cameron, who would like to see an air strike against Syria. Cruise missiles are already in place for such a strike, according to multiple reports.
At a Monday White House press briefing following Kerry's speech, Press Secretary Jay Carney reiterated that the U.S. has "very little doubt" that Assad is "culpable" in the "undeniable" use of chemical weapons in Syria, and that the intelligence community has additional information on the chemical weapons attacks, to be released in the coming days. he added that it was "profoundly in the interest of the US and the international community that that violation of an international norm be responded to." However, Carney said that the president has not made a decision on what the U.S. response to Syria will be. Carney refused to speculate on what those potential responses would be. "It's an extremely serious matter," Carney said. "[Obama] is evaluating the appropriate response." As for whether we'll be getting a speech from Obama on Syria, Carney said "you can expect to hear him speak on it again," probably whenever that decision is made.
Meanwhile, a new Reuters/Ipsos poll found that just nine percent of Americans support a military intervention in Syria — but 25 percent said they would support U.S. military action against the country if Assad used chemical weapons. As the Washington Post points out, this is a strange disparity: the White House has said as early as April that they have evidence of Assad's chemical weapons use. The poll was conducted last week, during and after the deadly chemical attacks, and the emerging visual evidence of those attacks.
Here's the full transcript of Kerry's remarks:
Well, for the last several days President Obama and his entire national security team have been reviewing the situation in Syria. And today I want to provide an update on our efforts as we consider our response to the use of chemical weapons.
What we saw in Syria last week should shock the conscience of the world. It defies any code of morality. Let me be clear. The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity. By any standard, it is inexcusable. And despite the excuses and equivocations that some have manufactured, it is undeniable.
The meaning of this attack goes beyond the conflict on Syria itself. And that conflict has already brought so much terrible suffering. This is about the large-scale indiscriminate use of weapons that the civilized world long ago decided must never be used at all, a conviction shared even by countries that agree on little else.
There is a clear reason that the world has banned entirely the use of chemical weapons. There is a reason the international community has set a clear standard and why many countries have taken major steps to eradicate these weapons. There is a reason why President Obama has made it such a priority to stop the proliferation of these weapons, and lock them down where they do exist. There is a reason why President Obama has made clear to the Assad regime that this international norm cannot be violated without consequences. And there is a reason why no matter what you believe about Syria, all peoples and all nations who believe in the cause of our common humanity must stand up to assure that there is accountability for the use of chemical weapons so that it never happens again.
Last night, after speaking with foreign ministers from around the world about the gravity of this situation, I went back and I watched the videos — the videos that anybody can watch in the social media, and I watched them one more gut-wrenching time. It is really hard to express in words the the human suffering that they lay out before us.
As a father, I can’t get the image out of my head of a man who held up his dead child, wailing while chaos swirled around him, the images of entire families dead in their beds without a drop of blood or even a visible wound, bodies contorting in spasms, 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 own moral compass.
What is before us today is real, and it is compelling.
So I also want to underscore that while investigators are gathering additional evidence on the ground, our understanding of what has already happened in Syria is grounded in facts, informed by conscience and guided by common sense. The reported number of victims, the reported symptoms of those who were killed or injured, the firsthand accounts from humanitarian organizations on the ground, like Doctors Without Borders and the Syria Human Rights Commission — these all strongly indicate that everything these images are already screaming at us is real, that chemical weapons were used in Syria.
Moreover, we know that the Syrian regime maintains custody of these chemical weapons. We know that the Syrian regime has the capacity to do this with rockets. We know that the regime has been determined to clear the opposition from those very places where the attacks took place. And with our own eyes, we have all of us become witnesses.
We have additional information about this attack, and that information is being compiled and reviewed together with our partners, and we will provide that information in the days ahead.
Our sense of basic humanity is offended not only by this cowardly crime but also by the cynical attempt to cover it up. At every turn, the Syrian regime has failed to cooperate with the U.N. investigation, using it only to stall and to stymie the important effort to bring to light what happened in Damascus in the dead of night. And as Ban Ki- moon said last week, the U.N. investigation will not determine who used these chemical weapons, only whether such weapons were used, a judgement that is already clear to the world.
I spoke on Thursday with Syrian Foreign Minister Muallem, and I made it very clear to him that if the regime, as he argued, had nothing to hide, then their response should be immediate: immediate transparency, immediate access, not shelling. Their response needed to be unrestricted and immediate access. Failure to permit that, I told him, would tell its own story.
Instead, for five days the Syrian regime refused to allow the U.N. investigators access to the site of the attack that would allegedly exonerate them. Instead, it attacked the area further, shelling it and systematically destroying evidence. That is not the behavior of a government that has nothing to hide. 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 late and is too late to be credible.
Today’s reports of an attack on the U.N. investigators, together with the continued shelling of these very neighborhoods, only further weakens the regime’s credibility. At President Obama’s direction, I’ve spent many hours over the last few days on the phone with foreign ministers and other leaders. The administration is actively consulting with members of Congress, and we will continue to have these conversations in the days ahead. President Obama has also been in close touch with the leaders of our key allies, and the president will be making an informed decision about how to respond to this indiscriminate use of chemical weapons.
But make no mistake: 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. Nothing today is more serious, and nothing is receiving more serious scrutiny.