WASHINGTON — Backed up against a wall after nudging the Syrian red line as far as he could reasonably push it, President Obama responded to calls to make a case for action against the Assad regime by today sending out Secretary of State John Kerry.
That Kerry’s message was the main administration narrative was underscored by a weak press conference at the White House after the State Department statement, where Kerry took no questions from the media.
White House press secretary Jay Carney bumped the time of his Q&A with reporters, which was added to the schedule this morning, to allow time for Kerry to be well finished with his address.
“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,” Kerry said.
“There is a reason why President Obama has made clear to the Assad regime that this international norm cannot be violated without consequences,” he continued. “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.”
Kerry added 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.”
“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,” he said. “Our sense of basic humanity is offended not only by this cowardly crime, but also by the cynical attempt to cover it up.”
Speaking more like a politician than a secretary of State, and reading from script rather than rambling on the usual off-the-cuff Kerry-esqe tangents, he promised Obama “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,” Kerry said.
In halting responses at the daily briefing, Carney repeatedly referred to Wednesday’s chemical weapons attack as a “clear violation of an international norm.”
“And it is profoundly in the interest of the United States and of the international community that that violation of an international norm be responded to,” he said.
“This violation has to be taken very seriously. And the president is consulting with his national security team. The international community — rather the intelligence community — is further assessing and evaluating what happened and we’ll be able to share with you an assessment of the IC in the coming days about the use of chemical weapons on August 21,” Carney added. “And the president will continue to consult and review his options in terms of responding to it.”
Congressional leaders closely watching the administration’s sudden resolve unfold after more than two years of bloodshed under Bashar al-Assad appeared irritated that Obama had picked a proxy to deliver a message believed to be the precursor to surgical strikes on the Syrian regime.
“The eyes of the world are on the United States this week. The Syrian regime has blatantly crossed President Obama’s red line, the White House has acknowledged, by using chemical weapons on its people. The president’s response stands to have significant impact on the outcome of the lengthy Syrian civil war. The options facing the president are complicated, have far-reaching ramifications, and may require significant resources,” said House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). “That’s why, if he chooses to act, the president must explain his decision publicly, clearly, and resolutely.”
“The president is commander-in-chief. With that power comes obligations. One, of course, is to consult with Congress on the options he sees as a viable response. This consultation has not yet taken place, but it is an essential part of the process. And meaningful consultation should happen before any military action is taken,” Boehner continued.
Kerry said today “the administration is actively consulting with members of Congress, and we will continue to have these conversations in the days ahead.”
“More than just to Congress, the president has an obligation to the American people to explain the rationale for the course of action he chooses; why it’s critical to our national security; and what the broader strategy is to achieve stability,” said Boehner.
The speaker said surveys showing American hesitancy to intervene in Syria are “understandable,” and underscore “the need for the president to fully explain what is at stake and outline why he believes action is necessary.”
“If U.S. action is imminent, it is our hope that the president doesn’t forget his obligations – to Congress, but, also, to speak directly to the American people,” Boehner said.
That message wasn’t just coming from Republicans.
“I think the president will need to go before the American people and explain exactly what actually we’re taking in concert with others and why,” said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), a senior member of the House Intelligence Committee.
“Certainly I think whatever we do will be with our allies, NATO, and others. I think there has to be a coalition. We cannot go through the United Nations because the Russians veto everything and block everything. So I think that there have been consultations over the past several days, and I think that that there’s been a decision and I think we’ll hear about it soon,” said Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
“There are many difficult decisions, all bad choices in Syria,” Engel added. “As I’ve said before, the worst bad of all the choices is for us to do nothing.”
Russia is under the impression that the action will be coming soon, according to Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in a hastily called press conference today.
“Western leaders are making statements that indicate that they won’t wait for the results of this commission, they have already decided everything,” Lavrov said in reference to UN investigations of the attack. “It’s a very dangerous slippery slope that our Western partners have gone on before. I hope common sense prevails.”
Lavrov accused the West of “repeating the Iraqi and Libyan scenario.”
“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. Yet, they keep saying that the ‘red line’ has been crossed,” he said. “Now, we are hearing calls for a military campaign against Bashar Assad.”
Russia is an ally of the Assad regime and its top arms supplier. Opposition sources indicated to PJ Media tonight that the delivery system used to send the chemical weapons into the Damascus suburb might have been Iranian.
The Pentagon has taken heat from Congress for continuing its relationship with Russian state-owned arms exporter Rosoboronexport in a contract worth more than half a billion dollars to supply the Afghan National Security Forces with Mi-17 helicopters.
Assad gave an exclusive interview to Russian newspaper Izvestia in which he denied launching the chemical weapons strike and said he expected his friends at the Kremlin to have his back.
“Certainly, we expect Russia to block any interpretation that aims to serve American and western policies,” he said. “…I have a strong relationship with President Putin, which spans back many years even before the crisis.”
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said this morning that he hopes the administration comes to Congress — which is out on recess until Sept. 9 — “at some point” for authorization of action against Syria.
“But I think you’re gonna see a surgical, proportional strike against the Assad regime for what they have done. And I support that,” said Corker, ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“Hopefully as soon as we get back, Congress will take up an authorization for this. It’s the right thing to do. That’s what the American people expect their elected officials to be involved in.”
In the meantime, Corker added, “I think the Assad regime would be totally idiotic to take any additional steps in the short term relative to additional chemical warfare.”