US Secretary of State John Kerry said late Sunday that the evidence that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons in an August 21 attack near Damascus “speaks for itself.”
Kerry was speaking in London before a private meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Kerry has been in Europe for several days trying to raise support for a strike in Syria and discussing Middle East peace negotiations.
Earlier Sunday, Syrian President Bashar Assad denied any connection to the use of chemical weapons in the ongoing civil war in his country and threatened that his allies would carry out retaliatory action if his regime is attacked by Western forces.
The US, citing intelligence reports, said sarin gas was used in the August 21 attack outside Damascus, and that 1,429 people died, including 426 children. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which collects information from a network of anti-regime activists, says it has so far only been able to confirm 502 dead.
The attack caused an international uproar and prompted US President Barack Obama to seek Congressional approval of a military strike against Assad’s regime.
Assad, in a PBS interview slated to be aired on Monday, said there was not enough evidence to make a conclusive judgement about the alleged chemical attack.
Speaking on the phone with CBS from Syria, interviewer Charlie Rose said Assad denied his army had any chemical weapons:
“He denied that he knew there was a chemical attack, notwithstanding what has been said and notwithstanding the videotape. He said there’s not enough evidence to make a conclusive judgment. He would not say even… even though I read him the lead paragraph of The New York Times today in the story about their chemical weapons supply. And he said I cannot confirm or deny that we do have them. He did, however, say that if in fact we do have them — and I am not going to say Yes or No — they are in centralized control and no one else has access to them.”
According to Rose, the most important thing Assad said is that “there has been no evidence that I used chemical weapons against my own people.” Rather, the Syrian president once again suggested opposition troops were behind the attack.
The Obama administration has been making a big push to rally members of Congress and the international community to support a US-led strike against the Syrian regime. Lawmakers are this week to consider a resolution authorizing the “limited and specified use” of US armed forces against Syria for no more than 90 days and barring American ground troops from combat.
The White House asserted Sunday that a “common-sense test” rather than “irrefutable, beyond-a-reasonable-doubt evidence” makes the Syrian government responsible for the chemical weapons attack.
As part of a major push to win the backing of a divided Congress and skeptical American public, Obama’s top aides made the rounds of the Sunday talk shows to press the case for “targeted, limited consequential action to deter and degrade” Assad’s capabilities “to carry out these terrible attacks again.”
At the same time, White House chief of staff Denis McDonough acknowledged the risks that military action could drag the US into the middle of a brutal civil war and endanger allies such as Israel with a retaliatory attack.
The US is “planning for every contingency in that regard and we’ll be ready for that,” he told CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Obama plans a national address Tuesday night from the White House on Syria, and McDonough was asked whether the president would reveal a direct connection between Assad and the attack.
“The materiel was used in the eastern suburbs of Damascus that have been controlled by the opposition for some time,” McDonough said. “It was delivered by rockets — rockets which we know the Assad regime has and we have no indication that the opposition has.”
McDonough also cited a DVD compilation, released Saturday by a US official, of videos showing attack victims. The DVD was shown to senators during a classified briefing on Thursday.
“We’ve seen the video proof of the outcome of those attacks,” he said. “All of that leads to a quite strong common-sense test irrespective of the intelligence that suggests that the regime carried this out. Now do we have a picture or do we have irrefutable beyond-a-reasonable-doubt evidence? This is not a court of law and intelligence does not work that way. So what we do know and what we know the common-sense test says is he is responsible for this. He should be held to account.”
Recent opinion surveys show intense public skepticism in the US about military intervention in Syria, even among those who believe Syria’s government used chemical weapons on its people.
In almost two-and-a-half years of fighting, over 100,000 people have been killed and some two million have fled Syria.