The Washington Post reports:
President Obama is weighing a military strike against Syria that would be of limited scope and duration, designed to serve as punishment for Syria’s use of chemical weapons and as a deterrent, while keeping the United States out of deeper involvement in that country’s civil war, according to senior administration officials.
The timing of such an attack, which would probably last no more than two days and involve sea-launched cruise missiles — or, possibly, long-range bombers — striking military targets not directly related to Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, would be dependent on three factors: completion of an intelligence report assessing Syrian government culpability in last week’s alleged chemical attack; ongoing consultation with allies and Congress; and determination of a justification under international law.
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Following Mr. Kerry’s statement on Syria, Marie Harf, Deputy State Department Spokesperson answered reporters’ questions.
As would be expected on such a serious and perhaps controversial issue as possible military action against Syria’s regime, the session was quite contentious.
At the end of the post is a sampling of questions and answers.
For the entire transcript please go here.
Four months ago, after the United States came to the conclusion “with varying degrees of confidence” that the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent sarin, I asked “what next” if and when we deem that the now-famous “red line” has indeed been crossed.
Recognizing that for Americans, the specters of the disastrous, unnecessary Iraq War and of our troops still dying — for the 12th year — in Afghanistan weigh heavily against any more foreign military interventions, I wondered how I might feel — and what options Obama might have — if we had not squandered so much blood and treasure in Iraq.
But then I said,
Many other Americans, including this author, believe that — regardless of the Bush “aftereffect” — if Syria has indeed crossed that “red line,” the United States along with its allies must stop Syria from horrifically killing, maiming, torturing, injuring and debilitating (additional) innocent men, women and children with chemical weapons.
I extensively quoted Max Fisher, at the Washington Post, who eloquently and rationally discussed why it matters if the Assad regime — that has already killed large numbers of civilians, including women and children — uses chemical weapons even in small amounts: “Isn’t that just more of the same rampant killing that’s been happening for two years? Isn’t it inconsistent, and maybe a bit absurd, to say that some deaths matter more because they were caused by sarin rather than shells?”
Fisher says that “it’s a big deal if Syria crossed the chemical weapons ‘red line’” not just because “killing even just a few people with chemical weapons is somehow different than killing lots of people with conventional weapons,” but because it is more than just about Syria: “[I]t’s about every war that comes after, about what kind of warfare the world is willing to allow, about preserving the small but crucial gains we’ve made over the last century in constraining warfare in its most terrible forms.”
Keeping Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s regime from breaking the chemical weapons taboo is about more than just what happens in Syria: It’s about maintaining the international norm against chemical warfare, about ensuring that present and future wars will not redeploy the awful chemical weapons that made the First World War so much worse than it would have otherwise been.
One day, hopefully, we’ll have norms that also make it a taboo to massacre children or put down peaceful protests with tanks, as Assad’s regime has done. We’re not there yet, but if we want to get there, we have to start by preserving the norms we already have. That does not necessarily mean a unilateral U.S. intervention, of course, but it does mean treating the use of chemical weapons as a transgression qualitatively different from the Assad regime’s many prior abuses.
After the latest massive, cruel and indiscriminate use of chemical weapons against innocent men, women and children by the Assad regime, I believe that the time has come to “preserve the norms we already have,” to hold the regime accountable for this “moral obscenity,” as Secretary of State Kerry just said in remarks to reporters at the State Department, informing the press — the nation and the world — that “The president will be making an informed decision about how to respond…But make no mistake, President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world’s most heinous weapons.”
Here is the text of Kerry’s remarks.
Edited to correct a reference to the Assad regime
Excerpts from Press Conference
On the evidence that chemical weapons have been used:
MS. HARF: I think what the Secretary just made clear and what I’m making clear is that there’s a preponderance of evidence that chemical weapons were used in this case. We obviously think it’s important to continue gathering as many facts as possible and to do it in our investigation —
On the nature of the chemical attack(s):
I think that one of the reasons – you heard the Secretary talk today that this would be an incredible – different kind of scale use of chemical weapons, and that the international community has set out norms about the use of chemical weapons and how it’s unacceptable. Again, as the Secretary said, countries that agree on little else agree on this. And so because of the brazenness of the attack, the large scale of it, the President is determining how to respond in an appropriate fashion.
But let’s be clear about where the responsibility for these attacks lie – it’s squarely on the Assad regime, who at every point has chosen the path that is most hurtful to the Syrian people, at every point in this investigation has chosen the path that leads us further away from the truth, period.
On the possible response(s):
The President has a range of options that he’s currently looking at with his national security team. Clearly, some of those, as we’ve talked about for a year, include military contingencies. But he’s looking at a range of options and has not yet made a decision on how to respond.
Well, I think, again, the President’s weighing a number of different options, and without getting into his head on this, I would say, broadly speaking, that any response – we’re not trying to determine the outcome of the situation in Syria. We continue to believe that there is no military solution here that’s good for the Syrian people, and that the best path forward is a political solution. This is about the violation of an international norm against the use of chemical weapons and how we should respond to that. Again, this is one massive, horrific incident, but there is also the continuing civil war going on the ground, and we will continue making policy decisions about that separately going forward.
Well, let’s be clear the President hasn’t made a decision yet about the next course of action, and I don’t want to get into hypothetical legal analysis from the podium here before a decision has even been made. So I think I would leave it at that for now and we can, I’m sure, address this in the coming days.
On the (UN) Investigations:
Well, as we have said, at this point we believe that it’s been too long and there’s been too much destruction of the area for the investigation to be credible. And again, the security situation has clearly not been good for the UN investigative team, as we’ve seen today. So we don’t the regime to be able to use their, quote, “participation” with the investigation as some kind of charade to continue destroying evidence. So our view is that we will continue our assessment, that we will continue gathering our information, but that it’s plain – it’s plainly obvious to the world what has happened here.
Well, we’re continuing to gather facts and evidence as we can. Clearly, the more evidence we can gather, the better, but based on all of those things I laid out in this briefing and what we’ve talked about publicly, we have made our determination that I’ve talked about already here today. And when we have a formal announcement to make about some sort of assessment, we’ll do so.
Well, I think certainly there’s overwhelming credible evidence that chemical weapons were used, period. I think everybody broadly around the world seems to agree that they were used in this case. Again —
Well, again, we continue to gather facts and evidence in coordination with our international partners, and when we are in a position to make a formal determination, we will do so. So I think – again, you heard the Secretary very clearly say the Syrian regime is the one with the capabilities to do this, and at the same time, we’re going to keep gathering evidence about this.
Well, again, some people are asking about a specific intelligence assessment. I think we’re – let’s try and delineate some of these things from each other. But the Secretary was very clear in his language about what he said about the preponderance of publicly available information that shows (a) that chemical weapons were used, and then he ticked through the evidence that the Syrian regime has used these in the past. They’re the ones with the capabilities to use them now. Clearly, we’re still gathering the facts on the ground, but I think the Secretary’s statement was very strong about what we think happened here. And as we have more announcements to make about evidence or information, we’ll do so in the coming days.
We continue to work with our international partners to gather more information as it becomes available. Clearly, we all share the goal, and one of the things the Secretary is raising with all of his foreign counterparts is sharing of this additional information if they get it, whether it’s from survivors or witnesses or others. So I think that’s the first point that I would make. And it’s not that we don’t think that evidence gained on the ground would be helpful; it’s that we feel that the Syrian regime has done so much to attack the area, and the situation is not safe for the team, and that the regime will continue to use this as an excuse and a stalling tactic without actually giving them any real access.
Well, it’s the kind of information that the intelligence community is looking at as part of their assessment. Clearly, part of that is open-source information. Clearly, part of that is the type of intelligence that we gather when we’re trying to make determinations, similar to what we did when we made the last determination about chemical weapons use. So when we have something further to share on that assessment and that detailed information, we will be sharing it with the public in the appropriate venue, and also we’ve been sharing it with our partners around the world at the same time.
Again, the investigation is ongoing that the intelligence community is doing, but I will say a few things about the regime, that the regime has used chemical weapons in the past year, we know that the regime has the capability to launch a chemical weapons attack, as the Secretary said, using this method. We also know that the regime has been determined to clear the opposition from this area. So clearly we’re still gathering all the information, but there is very little doubt in our mind that this was perpetrated by the regime.
On “citing international law as having been violated and as a reason to – as an impetus to act”:
Well, we haven’t made a decision on what our response will be yet, and again, I’m not going to do legal analysis and get ahead of any decision from the podium at this point. We’re citing the fact that a number of countries have made very clear around the world that chemical weapons are something that should not be used, and I think we’ll talk more about that in the coming days.
On response to the Russian assertion that such a response from the U.S. would violate international law:
Well, I would reiterate that the President has not made a decision about a response yet, and that would be my only response to the Russians.
On assuring the international community, the American people, that whatever the response is, it will be legal under international law:
MS. HARF: Yes.
QUESTION: Whatever response –
MS. HARF: I’m not going to do a legal analysis from here about hypotheticals.
QUESTION: I’m not asking for the response. The United States will not act outside the bounds of international law in its response?
MS. HARF: Yes.
On Britain’s Foreign Minister saying that a unanimous Security Council agreement is not required for British action
MS. HARF: Again, the President hasn’t made a decision about our response, so I’m not going to get into hypotheticals. And certainly, I’m not going to speak for our friends across the pond on anything they’ve said about their potential response.
QUESTION: Has the President asked his team to come up with the options by a certain time?
MS. HARF: No, I’m not going to put a timeline on this. Clearly, this is an important decision on how to respond. I do think people feel that there’s a sense of urgency. Clearly, I think you’ve seen that from the statement the Secretary made today, but no timeline on any decision.
QUESTION: Is it possible that – I mean, what is it that Assad can do now to avoid an attack?
MS. HARF: Again, the President hasn’t made a decision. I don’t even want to venture to hypothetically answer that question. I would —
QUESTION: But is a response inevitable? But is a response inevitable? He’s —
MS. HARF: Some sort of policy response in some way? I think that should go without saying. Last time, we said that if chemical weapons had been used, we made a policy decision to respond by increasing the scale and scope of assistance.
MS. HARF: — except to say that we made a decision to expand the scale and scope of our assistance, and that’s what we’ve done. And we will —
QUESTION: But not to deliver it?
MS. HARF: And we – I’m not going to go into those specifics about what has or hasn’t happened with a certain kind of assistance.
QUESTION: Okay, but when you say that there is going to be a policy response —
MS. HARF: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: — can you assure that there is going to be an actual response and not a rhetorical response?
MS. HARF: Well, I would disagree with your characterization of our last response and say that it was more than rhetorical.
QUESTION: But —
The author is a retired U.S. Air Force officer and a writer.