Kerry tells senators inaction in Syria will embolden US enemies

Secretary of state says 'no' vote would deal blow to American credibility, make the world more dangerous

Kerry answers questions about an Obama administration proposal to launch military strikes against Syria while testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on September 3, 2013.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

The Obama administration's top national security officials testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Tuesday afternoon, representing the alleged use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as not just a humanitarian crisis, but a direct threat to the United States.

Secretary of State John Kerry said inaction would have grave ramifications and embolden the United States' enemies, invoking Iran, North Korea, Hezbollah and more generally, "the mullahs" to make his case.  

"It's not an exaggeration to say that the world is watching not just to see what we decide but it's watching to see how we make this decision, whether in a dangerous world, we can still make our government speak with one voice," Kerry said.

"Iran is hoping you look the other way," he added before saying "North Korea is hoping ambivalence carries the day."

Kerry initially said that he was unwilling to take U.S. forces on the ground off the table in an emergency situation, and then quickly backtracked, saying he was simply "thinking out loud" and that "there will not be American boots on the ground with respect to the civil war." He added that the administration was open to amending the language of the resolution the White House originally proposed.

Click for Al Jazeera's special coverage of the conflict in Syria

"When the United States of America says 'Never again,' we don't mean sometimes, somewhere. Never means never," Kerry said. "This is a vote for accountability. Norms and laws to keep a civilized world civil mean nothing if they are not enforced."

Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — all three combat veterans — said the intelligence tracing the chemical weapons attack in late August to Assad left little room for doubt. Kerry cited the fact that not a single rocket fell on regime-controlled territory; that regime forces were instructed to wear gas masks in advance; and that the scenes of victims with "no wounds, no blood, but all dead" pointed in that direction.

The conversation may have reminded some lawmakers of 2002, when Bush administration officials descended on Capitol Hill to argue that the administration had evidence that the regime of President Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction — an assertion eventually proven wrong. At the time, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice told CNN, "We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud."

Kerry argued repeatedly that the circumstances were drastically different from a decade ago.

"I remember Iraq, Secretary Hagel remembers Iraq, and General Dempsey remembers Iraq," Kerry said. "We are especially sensitive to never again ask any member of Congress to take a vote on faulty intelligence."

Many senators, even those that expressed support for limited strikes, pushed for more details on why strikes were appropriate at the current moment, when the body count had reached over 100,000 in Syria before the chemical attack, and how military engagement would lead to a desirable resolution. The tone of the hearing was generally polite, if at times tense.

The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., believed he had enough votes to get the resolution through the chamber next week.

None of the Obama administration officials could concretely predict what the outcome of military engagement in Syria would be. They argued that chemical weapons proliferation and more showdowns with despotic dictators would assuredly be the consequence of not intervening.

"There are always unintended consequences of conflicts," Dempsey said.

Syrian refugees, who fled the violence in Syria, walk at a new refugee camp in the outskirts of the city of Arbil in Iraq's Kurdistan region Aug. 26, 2013.

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Under questioning from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Hagel conceded that the purpose of the military engagement was not to change the momentum in Syria's civil war but to degrade Assad's ability to stockpile weapons.

"This risk of chemical weapons proliferation poses a direct threat to our friends and partners and to U.S. personnel in the region," Hagel said. "We cannot afford for Hezbollah or any terrorist group determined to strike the United States to have incentives to acquire or use chemical weapons."

Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho, wondered what kind of an example would be set if after a limited military engagement, Assad still managed to prevail.

"Our allies are going to say, what's the matter with you United States? You didn't finish Assad off and the problem is just as bad as it was," he said.

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., asked why regime change was the Obama administration's official stated overall policy on Syria, but it was not the goal of the military strikes.

"The reason is that the president is listening to the American people," Kerry responded.

In direct contrast to the growing libertarian voices of his party, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., argued that isolation had proved to be ineffective in dealing with problems in the Middle East and elsewhere.

"When America ignores these problems, they don't ignore us," Rubio said. 

A Washington Post poll released Tuesday showed that 59 percent of Americans opposed missile strikes against the Syrian government, even if the regime used chemical weapons. Some lawmakers echoed that war-weariness.

"We've been here before," said Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., adding that limited strikes in Iraq in the early 1990s paved the way for a full occupation later and that diplomatic options in the current situation had not been exhausted. "How can this administration guarantee that our military engagement will be limited?"

"Are you going to be comfortable if Assad … then gasses his people yet again?" Kerry shot back. "We shouldn’t turn our backs and say there’s nothing we can do."

Protesters from anti-war organization Codepink heckled and interrupted the hearing several times, before being removed from the room. They found a sympathetic ear in Kerry, who noted that he had appeared for the first time in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when he was 27 years old as an opponent of the Vietnam War.

In 1971, appearing with the group Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Kerry famously challenged the committee, "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., played off his words this weekend in arguing against intervention. "I had feelings very similar to that protester," he said. "I think we all can respect those who have a different point of view, and we do."

Al Jazeera

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Middle East, Syria
Syria's War
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John Kerry

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