The Obama administration on Monday toughened its criticism of Syria’s alleged chemical weapons use, with Secretary of State John Kerry cutting short his vacation to deliver a scathing indictment of the Assad regime. It was the first time the US said unequivocally that the Syrian government was behind a devastating attack that killed hundreds last week.
In an address at the State Department (read the full speech here), Kerry said that chemical attacks were “inexcusable” and “undeniable,” that they defied “the code of morality” and should “shock the conscience of the world.” He called the killing of innocent women and children a “moral obscenity” and reiterated — in what appeared to be a direct threat to the Assad regime — that there must be accountability for the use of such weapons.
In an apparent jab at Russia, which has been insisting that the West does not have sufficient evidence of chemical weapons use to justify an attack on Syria, Kerry said that anyone who thought the evidence of a chemical attack was “contrived” or fabricated “must check their moral conscience.”
“Everything the images are screaming at us is real,” he said. “Chemical weapons were used in Syria. 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 regime has been determined to clear the opposition from those very places where the attacks took place. With our own eyes we have all become witnesses.
“Syria,” Kerry continued, “has refused to cooperate from the beginning, has systematically covered up evidence. That they finally, after five days, allowed UN inspectors in to view the site is not enough.”
Kerry’s unprecedented remarks came hours after a United Nations team on the ground in Syria came under attack while heading to investigate last week’s purported use of deadly gases by President Bashar Assad’s regime.
During his remarks, Kerry accused Assad of obfuscating evidence so as to thwart a United Nations investigation of the alleged chemical attack.
“Our sense of basic humanity is offended not only by this cowardly crime but also by the cynical attempt to cover it up,” he said. “At every turn the Syrian regime has failed to cooperate with the UN investigation, using it only to stall and stymie the important effort to bring to light what happened in Damascus in the dead of night.”
US officials say the investigation is largely meaningless because the Syrian government did not authorize it until evidence was likely destroyed by shelling late last week. Even without the investigation, officials say they have “very little doubt” that chemical weapons were used, based in part on the number of reported victims, the symptoms of those injured or killed and witness accounts.
The alleged chemical weapons attack has moved the United States closer to military action against Syria than at any point during the bloody civil war. But the Obama administration and international allies appear narrowly focused on a response that would punish Assad for deploying deadly gases, not sweeping actions aimed at ousting Assad or strengthening rebel forces.
The focus of the internal debate underscores the scant international appetite for a large-scale deployment of forces in Syria and the limited number of other options that could significantly change the trajectory of the conflict.
US and Western European officials were working to build an international consensus around the eventual response. British Prime Minister David Cameron, who also cut short his vacation, spoke Monday with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose government has continued to support Assad throughout the civil war.
“The prime minister made clear that there was little doubt that this was an attack carried out by the Syrian regime,” a Cameron spokesman said. “There was no evidence to suggest that the opposition had the capability to carry out such a significant attack and the regime had launched a heavy offensive in the area in the days before and after the incident.”
Russian officials say there is no proof that the Syrian government is behind last week’s attack.
Cameron’s office said the British government would decide on Tuesday whether the timetable for the international response means it will be necessary to recall lawmakers to Parliament before their scheduled return next week. That decision could offer the clearest indication of how quickly the US and allies plan to respond.
More than 100,000 people have died in clashes between forces loyal to Assad and rebels trying to oust him from power over the past two-and-a-half years. While President Barack Obama has repeatedly called for Assad to leave power, he has resisted calls for a robust US intervention, and has largely limited American assistance to humanitarian aid. However, Obama said last year that chemical weapons use would cross a “red line” and would likely change his calculus in deciding on a US response.
But last week’s attack in the Damascus suburbs is a challenge to Obama’s credibility. He took little action after Assad used chemical weapons on a small scale earlier this year and risks signaling to countries like Iran that his administration does not follow through on its warnings.
Syrian activists say the August 21 attack killed hundreds; the group Doctors Without Borders put the death toll at 355 people. Assad has denied launching a chemical attack.
It’s unlikely that the US would launch a strike against Syria while the United Nations team is still in the country. The administration may also try to time a strike around Obama’s travel schedule — he’s due to hold meetings in Sweden and Russia next week — in order to avoid having the commander in chief abroad when the US launches military action.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Monday countered the US claim that the investigation at the site of last week’s attack was too little, too late.
“Despite the passage of a number of days, the secretary-general is confident that the team will be able to obtain and analyze evidence relevant for its investigation of the August 21 incident,” UN spokesman Farhan Haq said in New York
Kerry returned to Washington on Sunday night so he could attend Syria deliberations in person. The secretary, who spent the weekend making phone calls to various world leaders, had participated in Syria meetings at the White House last week by secure audio and video link. He had not been due to return to work until after Labor Day.