Speaking for the administration the second time this week, Secretary of State John Kerry laid out some of the unclassified evidence pointing to Bashar al-Assad’s responsibility for the chemical weapons attack and brushed off the need to have the United Nations on board to take action against the regime.
Kerry said the U.S. government has ascertained that at least 1,429 Syrians were killed in this attack, including at least 426 children.
The findings of the intelligence committee, he stressed, “are as clear as they are compelling.”
“I’m not asking you to take my word for it. Read for yourself, everyone, those listening, all of you, read for yourselves the evidence from thousands of sources, evidence that is already publicly available,” he said. “And read for yourselves the verdict, reached by our intelligence community about the chemical weapons attack the Assad regime inflicted on the opposition and on opposition controlled or contested neighborhoods in the Damascus suburbs on the early morning of August 21st.”
“Our intelligence community has carefully reviewed and re-reviewed information regarding this attack. And I will tell you it has done so more than mindful of the Iraq experience. We will not repeat that moment. Accordingly, we have taken unprecedented steps to declassify and make facts available to people who can judge for themselves.”
What’s not available for public consumption is evidence that could betray “sources and methods,” which will only be available to members of Congress.
Kerry then dove into the unclassified facts.
“We know that the Assad regime has the largest chemical weapons programs in the entire Middle East. We know that the regime has used those weapons multiple times this year, and has used them on a smaller scale but still it has used them against its own people, including not very far from where last Wednesday’s attack happened,” he said. “We know that the regime was specifically determined to rid the Damascus suburbs of the opposition, and it was frustrated that it hadn’t succeeded in doing so.”
“We know that for three days before the attack, the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons personnel were on the ground in the area, making preparations. And we know that the Syrian regime elements were told to prepare for the attack by putting on gas masks and taking precautions associated with chemical weapons. We know that these were specific instructions,” Kerry continued.
“We know where the rockets were launched from, and at what time. We know where they landed, and when. We know rockets came only from regime-controlled areas and went only to opposition-controlled or contested neighborhoods. And we know, as does the world, that just 90 minutes later all hell broke loose in the social media.”
The intelligence community included video from the attack aftermath in its determination. One activist who runs the Violations Documentation Center in Syria told Foreign Policy magazine that of their citizen journalist crew who sped to the area to document the horrors, all but one died from exposure to the nerve agents.
“With our own eyes we have seen the thousands of reports from 11 separate sites in the Damascus suburbs. All of them show and report victims with breathing difficulties, people twitching with spasms, coughing, rapid heartbeats, foaming at the mouth, unconsciousness, and death. And we know it was ordinary Syrian citizens who reported all of these horrors,” Kerry said.
“And just as important, we know what the doctors and the nurses who treated them didn’t report — not a scratch, not a shrapnel wound, not a cut, not a gunshot sound. We saw rows of dead lined up in burial shrouds, the white linen unstained by a single drop of blood.”
He confirmed that many first responders were also affected, and “became victims themselves.”
“This is the indiscriminate, inconceivable horror of chemical weapons. This is what Assad did to his own people,” the secretary added.
“We also know many disturbing details about the aftermath. We know that a senior regime official who knew about the attack confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime, reviewed the impact, and actually was afraid that they would be discovered,” Kerry said, adding that for four days after the chemical weapons attack the regime shelled the neighborhood at a rate “four times higher than they had over the previous 10 days” and restricted access to UN inspectors.
“In all of these things that I have listed, in all of these things that we know — all of them — the American intelligence community has high confidence, high confidence. This is common sense. This is evidence. These are facts,” he continued. “So the primary question is really no longer, what do we know. The question is, what are we — we collectively — what are we in the world gonna do about it.”
“As previous storms in history have gathered, when unspeakable crimes were within our power to stop them, we have been warned against the temptations of looking the other way. History is full of leaders who have warned against inaction, indifference and especially against silence when it mattered most.”
Without saying that the administration had secured any countries as allies in a strike, Kerry rattled off statements from entities that similarly blamed Assad for using chemical weapons, including the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference. He also singled out “our oldest ally, the French” as condemning Assad’s “vile action,” but didn’t mention Britain.
“It matters deeply to the credibility and the future interests of the United States of America and our allies. It matters because a lot of other countries, whose policy has challenged these international norms, are watching. They are watching. They want to see whether the United States and our friends mean what we say,” he said. “It is directly related to our credibility and whether countries still believe the United States when it says something. They are watching to see if Syria can get away with it, because then maybe they too can put the world at greater risk.”
“…It is also profoundly about who we are. We are the United States of America. We are the country that has tried, not always successfully, but always tried to honor a set of universal values around which we have organized our lives and our aspirations…. My friends, it matters here if nothing is done. It matters if the world speaks out in condemnation and then nothing happens.”
Addressing the “what do we do?” question, Kerry acknowledged how much he admires the UN but stressed that their chemical weapons investigation mandate is not to find the culprit for the gassing.
“By the definition of their own mandate, the U.N. can’t tell us anything that we haven’t shared with you this afternoon or that we don’t already know,” he said. “And because of the guaranteed Russian obstructionism of any action through the U.N. Security Council, the U.N. cannot galvanize the world to act as it should. So let me be clear. We will continue talking to the Congress, talking to our allies, and most importantly, talking to the American people.”
He also acknowledged war-weariness reflected in recent polls. “We know that after a decade of conflict, the American people are tired of war. Believe me, I am, too.”
“But fatigue does not absolve us of our responsibility. Just longing for peace does not necessarily bring it about. And history would judge us all extraordinarily harshly if we turned a blind eye to a dictator’s wanton use of weapons of mass destruction against all warnings, against all common understanding of decency, these things we do know.”
Without getting into detail, Kerry said whatever decision Obama makes will be a “limited, tailored” response that “will bear no resemblance to Afghanistan, Iraq or even Libya.”
“The primary objective is to have a diplomatic process that can resolve this through negotiation, because we know there is no ultimate military solution.”
THE UNCLASSIFIED REPORT: Government Assessment of the Syrian Government’s Use of Chemical Weapons on August 21, 2013