WASHINGTON – Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday outlined the clearest justification yet for U.S. military action in Syria, saying there was “undeniable” evidence of a large-scale chemical weapons attack, with intelligence strongly signaling that Bashar Assad’s regime was responsible.
Kerry, speaking at the State Department, said last week’s attack “should shock the conscience” of the world.
“The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons, is a moral obscenity. By any standard, it is inexcusable and – despite the excuses and equivocations that some have manufactured – it is undeniable,” said Kerry, the highest-ranking U.S. official to confirm the attack in the Damascus suburbs that activists say killed hundreds of people.
“This international norm cannot be violated without consequences,” he added.
Officials said President Barack Obama has not decided how to respond to the use of deadly gases, a move the White House said last year would cross a “red line.” But the U.S., along with allies in Europe, appeared to be laying the groundwork for the most aggressive response since Syria’s civil war began more than two years ago.
Two administration officials said the U.S. was expected to make public a more formal determination of chemical weapons use today, with an announcement of Obama’s response likely to follow quickly. The officials insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the internal deliberations.
The international community appeared to be considering action that would punish Assad for deploying deadly gases, not sweeping measures aimed at ousting the Syrian leader 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.
The Obama administration was moving ahead even as a United Nations team already on the ground in Syria collected evidence from last week’s attack. The U.S. said Syria’s delay in giving the inspectors access rendered their investigation meaningless and officials said the administration had its own intelligence confirming chemical weapons use.
“What is before us today is real and it is compelling,” Kerry said. “Our understanding of what has already happened in Syria is grounded in facts.”
The U.S. assessment is based in part on the number of reported victims, the symptoms of those injured or killed and witness accounts. Administration officials said the U.S. had additional intelligence confirming chemical weapons use and planned to make it public in the coming days.
Officials stopped short of unequivocally stating that Assad’s government was behind the attack. But they said there was “very little doubt” that it originated with the regime, noting that Syria’s rebel forces do not appear to have access to the country’s chemical weapons stockpile.
Assad has denied launching a chemical attack. The U.N. team came under sniper fire Monday as it traveled to the site of the Aug. 21 attack.
It’s unclear whether Obama would seek authority from the U.N. or Congress before using force. The president has spoken frequently about his preference for taking military action only with international backing, but Russia and China would likely block U.S. efforts to authorize action through the U.N. Security Council.
Kerry on Monday made several veiled warnings to Russia, which has propped up Assad’s regime, blocked action against Syria at the U.N., and disputed evidence of the government’s chemical weapons use.
“Anyone who can claim that an attack of this staggering scale can be contrived or fabricated needs to check their conscience and their own moral compass,” he said.
More than 100,000 people have died in clashes between forces loyal to Assad and rebels trying to oust him from power in the past two-and-a-half years. While Obama has repeatedly called for Assad to leave power, he has resisted calls for a robust U.S. intervention, and has largely limited American assistance to humanitarian aid. The president said last year that chemical weapons use would cross a “red line” and would likely change his calculus in deciding on a U.S. response.
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 Aug. 21 attack killed hundreds; the group Doctors Without Borders put the death toll at 355 people.
The most likely U.S. military action would be to launch Tomahawk cruise missiles off U.S. warships in the Mediterranean Sea. The Navy last week moved a fourth destroyer into the eastern Mediterranean.
Officials said it was likely the targets would be tied to the regime’s ability to launch chemical weapons attacks. Possible targets would include weapons arsenals, command and control centers, radar and communications facilities, and other military headquarters.
The president has ruled out putting American troops on the ground in Syria and officials say they also are not considering setting up a unilateral no-fly zone.