‘Our inaction [in Syria] is guaranteed to bring worse consequences,” US Secretary of State John Kerry said on Tuesday in a bid to convince Congress to support US President Barack Obama’s Syria pitch.
Kerry was testifying before the House Armed Services committee Tuesday afternoon along with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey, ahead of a national address Obama is due to give later in the day.
“It’s important that we show the world we have the ability to hopefully speak with one voice,” Kerry told the assembly. He stressed that inaction on Syria would have harsh consequences for the Syrian people, America’s Middle Eastern allies and the United States itself.
“Iran looms out there with its nuclear program and the challenge we have been facing… they’re watching what we do here,” Kerry warned. “If we choose not to act, we’ll be sending a message to Iran of American ambivalence, American weakness.”
With reference to the Russian proposal which would have Syria put its chemical weapons arsenal under international control, Kerry said, “I’ve made it clear that this cannot be a process of delay, of avoidance, it has to be measurable, tangible. We’re waiting for that proposal, but we’re not waiting for long… it can’t be a delay tactic.”
Kerry stressed that the Russian proposal was brought to the table and even accepted by the Syrians only because of the threat of force emanating from Washington.
“A lot of people say nothing focuses the mind like the prospect of a hanging,” said Kerry, urging Congress to stand behind Obama in order to make the threat of force — and the pressure on Damascus — more compelling.
“It’s the credible threat of force… that has brought this regime to even acknowledge that it has a chemical weapons arsenal,” he said.
Stressing that America wouldn’t be going to war and that the intended strike was to be “targeted, limited but consequential” in its crippling effect on Assad, Kerry spoke of the importance of upholding the international ban on chemical weapons use and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
“I can say with absolute confidence: the risk of not acting is much greater than the risk of acting,” Kerry said. “If we don’t act, Assad will believe he has the license to gas his own people again” and turn weapons of mass destruction into tactical, everyday arms “in a world of terrorists and extremists.”
Kerry said he’d spoken to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday and the two had acknowledged that while Israel didn’t want to be in the middle of the conflict, its security was at risk, as well as that of the entire region.
“People ask me why we’re choosing to have a debate on Syria at a time that there’s so much that we need to be doing here at home,” Kerry said at the start of his address.
“But we assure you the president of the United States of America didn’t just wake up one day and flippantly say, ‘Let’s go and take military action in Syria.’ We didn’t choose this,” he said. “We’re here today because Assad, a dictator who has chosen to meet requests for reform in his country with guns… made the decision to use the world’s most heinous weapons to murder, in one instance, more than 1,400 people,” among them children.
Kerry was adamant that Assad’s actions — and continued Western inaction — had consequences not just for the Syrian people, but for America as well.
“We’ll face this — if not today, then someday down the line, when the permissiveness of not acting now gives [Assad] the permission to do what he wants: frighten Israel, frighten Lebanon, create instability,” he said, adding that stability was one of America’s highest priorities in foreign policy.
“I want to make it clear at the outset… that what Assad has done directly affects America’s security,” Kerry said emphatically. “We have a huge national interest in containing all weapons of mass destruction, and the use of gas is a weapon of mass destruction. Allowing those weapons to be used with impunity would be a chink in our armor.”
Recalling his military training and its chemical component, Kerry declared, “If we don’t answer Assad today, we will irreparably damage a century-old standard that has protected American troops in war” — the nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
“The stability of this region is also in our direct security interests. Our allies and friends in Israel, Jordan and Turkey” were “just a strong wind away” from being dragged into the conflict, Kerry warned.
“Failure to act now will make this violent neighborhood even more combustible and will pave the way for a more serious challenge in the future,” he said.
Kerry emphasized that Obama’s strike plan did not preclude a political solution — on the contrary, the president’s “first priority throughout this process has been diplomacy.”
However, American diplomatic efforts, especially at the United Nations Security Council, were foiled by Syria’s allies, with Russia and China vetoing three resolutions condemning the Assad regime.
“No political solution is possible as long as Assad believes he can just gas his way out of this predicament,” he said, adding that 31 countries — among them Turkey and Saudi Arabia — had signed the G-12 statement endorsing US efforts to hold Assad accountable for the situation in his country.
“But our diplomatic hand only becomes stronger if other countries know America is speaking with a strong voice here, with one voice. In order to speak with that voice, we need you, Congress,” Kerry said.
“We’re the United States of America; people look to us for the meaning of our world and our values,” he added, but promised twice that there would be “no American boots on the ground.”
Hagel, who addressed Congress after Kerry, said that while he hoped the Russian proposal to place Syria’s chemical weapons cache under international control — as well as other diplomatic measures — would help resolve the crisis, the US must be sure Assad wasn’t attempting to divert international attention away from the ongoing civil war in the region.
“All of us are hopeful that this option might be a real solution to this crisis, yet we must be very clear-eyed and ensure that it’s not a stalling tactic,” Hagel said during the hearing, echoing Kerry’s statements on the subject.
In order that the newly-presented diplomatic option in Syria may have a chance to succeed, Hagel said, “the threat of a US military action — the credible, real threat of US military action — must continue.”
Hagel asserted that Assad had been inclined to accept the Russian proposition only because he was intimidated by a possible US attack.
“The fact that military action was on the table enabled this new diplomatic track,” Hagel said.
Hagel went on to acknowledge the American public’s uneasiness with the prospect of entering another Middle Eastern conflict, but urged Congress to recognize that heavily discouraging the use of nonconventional weapons in future conflicts was in America’s best interests.
“Committing our country to use military force is most difficult,” Hagel said. “We must be able to assure the American people that their leaders are acting according to their interests.”
The defense secretary added that failure to act with regard to the Syrian situation would have severe consequences on regional stability and may lead to the proliferation of chemical weapons among terrorist organizations in the region.
“[Chemical] weapons are profoundly destabilizing and have rightfully been rejected by members of the international community,” he said.
“We must do all we can to prevent Hezbollah or any terror groups from acquiring such weapons.”
Hagel added that American allies in the Middle East such as Turkey, Jordan and Israel were looking to the US for assurance that it would honor its commitment to them even in times of crisis.
“Our allies throughout the world must be assured that the US will stand by commitments and by its words,” said Hagel.
However, he added that the US did not expect military intervention to bring the Syrian civil war to an end.
“The US is not seeking to resolve the underlying conflict in Syria,” he said.