Secretary of State John Kerry gave an emotional statement on Syria on Monday, telling the world that a response to the “undeniable” use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime is imminent. He didn’t elaborate on what that response might be, but he made it clear that Syrian President Bashar al Assad has crossed President Obama’s “red line” with last week’s chemical attack outside Damascus that reportedly killed up to 1,000 civilians.
“The meaning of this attack goes beyond the conflict in Syria itself, and that conflict has already brought so much terrible suffering,” Kerry said. “This is about the large-scale, indiscriminate use of weapons that the civilized world long ago decided must never be used at all – a conviction shared even by countries that agree on little else.”
National security officials have been wringing their hands for months over what to do to stop the bloody civil war, which by most estimates has killed more than 100,000 people over the past two years. But Obama and his team of advisors have been extremely cautious to get involved, especially as opposition fighters become more fractured and aligned with al Qaeda affiliates and other enemies of the West. And even if Assad is removed from power, what comes next?
Kerry now says the mission in Syria is crystal clear – you can’t use chemical weapons against your people and get away with it. While he stopped short of announcing any impending military action, Kerry emphasized that there has to be repercussions for using chemical weapons.
“There is a clear reason that the world has banned entirely the use of chemical weapons. There is a reason the international community has set a clear standard and why many countries have taken major steps to eradicate these weapons. There is a reason why President Obama has made it such a priority to stop the proliferation of these weapons and lock them down where they do exist,” Kerry said. “There is a reason why President Obama has made clear to the Assad regime that this international norm cannot be violated without consequences. And there is a reason why no matter what you believe about Syria, all peoples and all nations who believe in the cause of our common humanity must stand up to assure that there is accountability for the use of chemical weapons so that it never happens again.”
How the U.S. and its allies plan to deliver that message to Assad remains to be seen. Obama warned Assad a year ago when he first drew his “red line” in the sand. “We have additional information about this attack, and that information is being compiled and reviewed together with our partners, and we will provide that information in the days ahead,” Kerry said, apparently setting the stage for the legal justification behind a military response.
“I spoke on Thursday with Syrian Foreign Minister [Walid al] Muallim and I made it very clear to him that if the regime, as he argued, had nothing to hide, then their response should be immediate – immediate transparency, immediate access – not shelling. Their response needed to be unrestricted and immediate access. Failure to permit that, I told him, would tell its own story,” Kerry said.
Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey and Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, the head of U.S. Central Command, are in Jordan with their counterparts from several allied nations, including Britain and France, for long-planned talks aimed at strengthening regional security. The talks, however, are now focusing on the worsening situation in Syria.
The splintered opposition forces are still an unknown factor in how all this plays out, and that worries Obama, who has been committed to ending the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, more than anything. But it’s becoming clearer that he isn’t going to stand for chemical attacks in Syria.
Whether Assad is listening is another thing.