Kerry lays out case against Syria with intelligence report

Secretary of state says 1,429 killed in chemical attack, and Obama must consider Syria strike without UN endorsement

Secretary of State John Kerry speaking on the situation in Syria at the State Department on Friday. He said an earlier chemical attack by Bashar al-Assad's regime against his people killed 1,429 people, including at least 426 children.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

The United States ramped up its case for action against Syria Friday, with Secretary of State John Kerry making a blunt speech and the simultaneous release of a detailed intelligence report accusing the Syrian government of using chemical weapons on its own people.

In a speech at the State Department, Kerry said there was "clear" and "compelling" evidence that the government was behind the attack, and argued that since the "U.N. cannot galvanize the world to act as it should," it fell on the U.S. and its willing partners to determine the next steps -- including the possible use of limited military strikes.

Kerry noted that the Obama administration was releasing an unclassified version of a U.S. intelligence assessment that says that the Syrian regime planned and conducted the Aug. 21 attack, which killed 1,429 people including at least 426 children.

"It matters because if we choose to live in the world where a thug and a murderer like Bashar al-Assad can gas thousands of his own people with impunity, even after the United States and our allies said no," Kerry said.

Saying that the U.S. intelligence community "assesses with high confidence" that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government used chemical weapons in the attack, Kerry added that the U.S. was determined to avoid past intelligence errors -- specifically like those ahead of the Iraq War -- as it now prepares for possible military action in Syria.  

Kerry said the United States has to respond appropriately to the evidence it has, in order to preserve its credibility and uphold the international convention against using weapons of mass destruction.

"The question is whether we -- we collectively -- what are we and the world going to do about it?"

Kerry acknowledged that Americans are weary of war, but continued to make the Obama administration's case for possible action in Syria.

"Fatigue does not absolve us of our responsibility," he said. "Just longing for peace does not necessarily bring it about."

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem responded to U.S. intelligence report on chemical weapons as lies and baseless. Muallem said Kerry's accusations are a "desperate attempt" to justify "potential aggression."

Just after Kerry's speech, Obama said the U.S. has an obligation "as a leader in the world" to hold countries accountable if they violate international norms. Obama added that he has strong preference for multilateral action, but said "we don't want the world to be paralyzed."

Kerry's speech and Obama's comments come a day after Britain rejected the idea of joining a U.S. military action, and amid growing calls on Capitol Hill for clarification of the Obama administration’s plans.

Key chemical weapons findings

  • Chemical weapons attack killed 1,429 people, including at least 426 children
  • Syrian government has used chemical weapons multiple times this year
  • Regime members in area were told ahead of the attack to wear protective masks
  • Rockets involved in Aug. 21 attack came only from government sites
  • Three days before attack U.S. collected "streams of human, signals and geospacial intelligence" indicating plans for attack
  • U.S. intercepted communications of "a senior official intimately familiar with the offensive," confirming Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack


On Thursday, the British parliament rejected Prime Minister David Cameron’s expressed interest in joining the U.S. in a military response to the Syrian regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons -- at least until after a U.N. chemical weapons team, which finished collecting samples Friday at the site of last week’s attack outside Damascus, presents its report to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Ban told permanent UN Security Council member that analysis of the Syira samples from the chemical weapons team could take two weeks, a diplomat said Friday, according to Reuters. The mandate of the U.N. team is to determine whether chemical agents were used in the suspected attack, not who was responsible.

Despite rejection from the UK, France on Friday reaffirmed its steadfast support for international action against Syria.

French President Francois Hollande told the daily Le Monde that he still supported taking "firm" punitive action over an attack he said had caused "irreparable" harm to the Syrian people, adding that he would work closely with France's allies.

Meanwhile, Obama is also attempting to reassure legislators on Capitol Hill, whose skepticism has been palpable in the several days after the administration first said it was considering military action.

House Democratic leader, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, pointedly sided with Republican Speaker John Boehner of Ohio in urging the administration to do more to engage Congress on the matter, even as she expressed "my appreciation for the measured, targeted and limited approach the president may be considering."

She said in a statement that she agreed with Boehner and other lawmakers who say the administration needs to consult more with "all members of Congress" -- a reference to the limited circle briefed Thursday night -- and to provide "additional transparency into the decision-making process."

Many members of Congress have been pressing Obama to explain the need for military action and to address fears that such a move might draw the U.S. deeper into the Syrian civil war, now in its third year.

Washington Rep. Adam Smith, senior Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, issued a statement saying that an attack might be ineffective.

"Simply lashing out with military force under the banner of 'doing something' will not secure our interests in Syria," Smith said.

Assad, who has denied using chemical weapons, vowed that his country "will defend itself against any aggression."

Meanwhile, the International Committee of the Red Cross, an independent humanitarian agency, said that while it was appalled by reports of a poison gas attack on Aug. 21 that left hundreds dead, a  proposed military action would "likely trigger more displacement and add to humanitarian needs, which are already immense." 

Some 2 million people have already fled Syria, including 1 million children. Human rights groups estimate that 100,000 people have been killed since the war began.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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