WASHINGTON – Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday that Syria’s use of chemical weapons is “undeniable” and that “this international norm cannot be violated without consequences.”
In a strongly worded assessment, Kerry said evidence now being gathered by United Nations experts on the ground in Syria was important but was not necessary to prove what is already “grounded in facts, informed by conscience and guided by common sense.”
As U.S. warships armed with cruise missiles were positioned in the Mediterranean amid international calls for action, Kerry said President Barack Obama “will be making an informed decision of how to respond.”
“Make no mistake: President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world’s most heinous weapons against the world’s most vulnerable people. Nothing today is more serious, and nothing is receiving more serious scrutiny,” Kerry said.
Kerry gave no indication of what the response would be or when it would take place.
A cruise missile strike, widely considered the most likely scenario, would be of limited duration – perhaps as few as 48 hours – without wider follow-up action such as the extended NATO bombardment of Libya in 2011, according to lawmakers and to individuals close to decision-making who spoke on condition of anonymity about the closely held plans.
The strike would probably be directed not at numerous and widely dispersed chemical weapons sites but rather at damaging the Syrian air force and bases. It would be calculated as a deterrent to prevent further atrocities rather than to end Syria’s civil war.
Obama and other officials have said repeatedly that no U.S. troops would be sent to Syria. But despite Obama’s year-old threat of an unspecified U.S. response if Syrian President Bashar Assad crossed a red line of chemical use, even a limited military action seemed unlikely before last Wednesday’s death of hundreds in an apparent chemical weapons attack allegedly launched by Assad’s government.
Any strike would probably await the departure of U.N. inspectors from Syria. Kerry said Assad’s forces had engaged in a “cynical attempt to cover up” the attacks, not only by delaying the arrival of the U.N. team but also by shelling the affected area of east Damascus since then.
“There is an understanding that this stuff happened six days ago,” one European official said of the time that has passed since the reported chemical strikes last week in the eastern outskirts of Damascus.
“What the U.N. can do is get as much as they can from what will inevitably be a degraded site. But let’s not expect that’s going to be a compelling smoking gun,” the official said.
Kerry said that Syria’s action “should shock the conscience of the world. It defies any code of morality” and goes “beyond the conflict in Syria itself. This is about the large-scale, indiscriminate use of weapons that the civilized world long ago decided must never be used at all.”
Late Monday, the State Department said it is canceling a meeting with Russian diplomats on Syria this week. The meeting at The Hague was about setting up an international conference to find a political resolution.
A senior State Department official said Monday the meeting between Undersecretary Wendy Sherman and U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford with their Russian counterparts was canceled because of the ongoing U.S. review about alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria.
The U.S. official said the meeting will be rescheduled because a political solution is still needed in Syria. The official was not authorized to publicly confirm the cancellation and spoke on condition of anonymity.
After spending the weekend consulting with allies, Kerry said he last night re-watched the dozens of videos of the aftermath of the attack posted on social media, including images of a father “wailing” over the body of his lifeless son, “images of entire families dead in their beds without a drop of blood or any visible wound, bodies contorting in spasms.”
The videos, along with physician and witness reports from the area, he said, “all strongly indicate that everything these images are already screaming at us is real, that chemical weapons were used in Syria.”
Congress is not in session, and several lawmakers said that while they would expect some consultation from the administration, a brief strike in response to chemical weapons use would not require prior notification.
While Congress has been deeply divided over any American military intervention, the use of chemicals appears to have changed at least some minds.
“We will have to act,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., a member of the House Intelligence Committee who has long opposed any U.S. military involvement, including the administration’s decision earlier this summer to send light arms to opposition military forces.
“I don’t think we can allow repeated use of chemical weapons now, an escalated use of chemical weapons, to stand.”
Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., the senior Democrat on the House Foreign Relations Committee, said he was “confident we’ll have some kind of action. It’s imperative.”
“There are only bad choices,” Engel said. “But of all the bad choices, the worst is for us to do nothing. We stand for something in the world. When a dictator gasses his own people, murders his own people, I think the United States in conjunction with its allies needs to step in.”
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the senior Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, emphasized that a U.S. strike should not be directed at altering the dynamic of Syria’s larger civil war.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.