Syria will become Afghanistan if we don’t act now, says Kerry

Syria will become Afghanistan if we don’t act now, says Kerry

Secretary of state claims strike will show Assad he’s on the losing side, prevent country from imploding into ungoverned terror hub

Yifa Yaakov is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

United States Secretary of State John Kerry speaks to reporters in the Ministry of Foreign Afairs palace in Vilnius, Lithuania, Saturday, September 7, 2013 (photo credit: AP/Mindaugas Kulbis)
United States Secretary of State John Kerry speaks to reporters in the Ministry of Foreign Afairs palace in Vilnius, Lithuania, Saturday, September 7, 2013 (photo credit: AP/Mindaugas Kulbis)

Syria will become Afghanistan if the United States doesn’t help rebels defeat Bashar Assad, US Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday during a Google+ Hangout session.

If America doesn’t strike, he said, “the greatest likelihood is: that Syria implodes, that the institutions of the state crash, that Syria breaks up,” creating “ungoverned free open spaces” where radical organizations “which are far worse, incidentally, than al-Qaeda” will start operating. When this happens, America will be forced to go to war in any case, “for the simple reason that they have already announced that they want to attack the US and the West.”

Kerry reiterated that while a military strike did not preclude a diplomatic solution, a diplomatic solution would not be possible without a strike – because as long as Assad saw himself as invincible, he would not agree to enter negotiations over a transitional government.

“Sometimes wars have started later because people didn’t do things that might’ve prevented them earlier. We believe this is a moment where not sending this message now could in fact present us with much greater dangers at a later point in time,” he said.

Therefore, for Washington, not striking would mean “willfully allowing ourselves to create a new Afghanistan, where al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden attacked us originally.”

Kerry said Moscow and Washington were trying to work together to organize a Geneva II conference, where a follow-up transition government would be decided upon.

“Right now, the problem has been that Assad thinks he’s winning and has no desire to come to negotiate,” Kerry explained. “So we are intending to upgrade the support to the opposition to try to help the opposition change the situation on the ground. We don’t believe there’s a military solution here, ultimately people are going to have to negotiate with each other, and we are doing everything in our power to push them in that direction.”

As he had been during his Congress address earlier Tuesday, Kerry remained adamant that no American boots would touch Syrian soil, “not today, not ever in the future.”

What America was prepared to do and was already doing, he said, was support the military opposition in Syria. Washington wasn’t the only one shouldering the cost of transferring arms and humanitarian supplies to the fighters – the Gulf states were ready to support the cost as well, meaning that US President Barack Obama’s plans weren’t “a huge threat to America’s treasure or treasure, young Americans.”

Kerry stressed that the case of Syria differed from that of Iraq or Afghanistan in that the US possessed strong intelligence and clear indications of Assad’s complicity in the August 21 chemical attack – knowledge Hezbollah, Iran and Russia were all privy to, but did not think it warranted outside involvement in the Syrian conflict.

“This is not Iraq, this is not Afghanistan, the intelligence is there for everyone to see,” Kerry said, referring viewers to the declassified report on the White House’s official website.

Kerry, who had spoken to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov just before the start of the online conference, said his Russian counterpart had “some interesting observations” on how Assad’s chemical arsenal could be secure.

“He is sending those to us. They’ll be coming in formally during the course of the day. We’ll have an opportunity to review them.”

“If we can, in fact, secure all of the chemical weapons in Syria through this method, clearly that’s by far the most preferable way, and would be a very significant achievement,” he said, but added that he wasn’t so confident it could be done quickly enough to suit Obama.

“For better or worse, the fact that Assad has been running a highly controlled and very hierarchical process has forced them to contain all of these weapons in the regime-controlled areas. As a result, it is our argument that they, therefore, can control access to these sites, and so we believe that they need to show us an entirely verifiable, completely accountable and ongoing verifiable process by which we know we have all of the weapons, access to any sites in question, unlimited access, investigation, verifiability – this cannot be a game, and that we have made very, very clear to the Russians,” he said.

“So far there are indications we will at least be able to have a serious conversation, whether we can meet what is necessary for president Obama to make the judgment that the objectives are being accomplished – we’ll just have to see,” he concluded, adding that a Security Council resolution would be necessary in order to monitor Syria’s chemical weapons caches.

“It also has to have consequences if games are played or if somebody tries to undermine this,” Kerry went on to warn. “I believe it is preferable to sending a message by use of force, which in the end wouldn’t in fact contain all of the weapons. So hopefully we can make it work, and this is something we’ve been discussing for some period of time, and my hope is with good faith it could be brought to fruition – but I don’t want raise expectations, because there are some big hurdles in terms of the verifiability and implementation that we have to cross.”

When asked why the US had decided to act only when the death toll in the Syrian civil war had crossed the six-figure threshold, Kerry replied that before the sarin gas incident which the US says killed over 1,400 Syrian civilians, there had not been sufficient proof that Assad was committing war crimes to justify a strike.

“We have consistently spoken out against Assad’s slaughter of his own people using Scud missiles, using airplanes against civilians, dropping napalm on children in schools – these are war crimes by almost any standard,” saidKerry. “But there hasn’t been a will in the global community, let alone in our own country, to get involved in Syria’s civil war.”

Once the line was crossed in August, Obama decided to support Assad’s military foes, but without direct American involvement.

“That’s was the straw that broke the camel’s back and the president decided that it needed a response from the world, because chemical weapons were suddenly being used as a tactical weapon in a civil war and any use of chemical weapons is unacceptable.”

Kerry said the justifications for US involvement ranged from “a moral imperative” to strategic, practical and military objectives which would be achieved by sending Assad “a message that his capacity to wage war could be affected if he continues to use these prohibited, outlawed, and outrageous weapons.”

The US secretary of state said the goings-on in Syria affected Americans and their security directly, because Assad’s tactical use of chemical weapons despite a century-long prohibition could threaten US soldiers in the future.

Assad’s actions also threatened US allies in the region, namely Jordan, Israel and Turkey.

“We believe that if we don’t stand up now … we can see those weapons used by terrorists,” Kerry said. This would not only “make the region more unstable than it is today,” but even “threaten us directly here at home.”

Asked whether US support wouldn’t empower the more radical, al-Qaeda-affiliated groups fighting Assad, Kerry said only the moderate opposition, which was more numerous than the Islamist groups, was being supported and groomed as “a barrier, a bulwark, against the very bad elements that are out there that do want to attack the United States.”

While the radical elements have “proven themselves to be the best fighters” and are probably the most trained and aggressive on the ground, he said, Washington and its allies have “put down a firm barrier between the assistance that goes to the moderate opposition and anything to those groups.”

Most experts and leaders in the region, added Kerry, believe that if you can hold Syria together as a country, put a transitional government in place and allow and the Syrian people choose their future, they will expel and stand up against these other groups.

“They will not have any standing, except by force, and they will be handled by the vast majority of Syrians who want a secular country in which minorities are protected,” Kerry said.

In a final bid to convince Americans to support Obama’s plan, Kerry added that Assad’s choice of allies proved he was a far from benign force.

“What does it mean to you that the principal supporters of Assad are Hezbollah, a terrorist organization and a client of Iran, with whom we are in a big struggle to prevent them from getting weapons of mass destruction, specifically nuclear weapons?” Kerry asked.

“We’re dealing, on the other hand, with Britain, France, Germany, Italy, countless other countries in the region, the neighborhood, Turkey, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, the Jordanians – [which] are all struggling with the problem of what Assad is wreaking on their region,” he said.

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