Transcript: Secretary of State John Kerry’s testimony on Syria before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Sept. 3, 2013
Partial transcript of Secretary of State John Kerry’s testimony on the use of chemical weapons in Syria before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Sept. 3, 2013:
…As we convene for this debate, it’s not an exaggeration to say to you – all of you, my former colleagues – that the world is watching not just to see what we decide but it’s watching to see how we made this decision, whether in a dangerous world we can still make our government speak with one voice. They want to know if America will rise to this moment and make a difference.
And the question of whether to authorize our nation to take military action is, as you have said Mr. Chairman…this is obviously one of the most important decisions, one of the most important responsibilities of this committee or of any any Senator through the course of a career.
The President and the administration appreciate that you have returned quickly to the nation’s capitol to address it and that you are appropriately beginning a process of focusing with great care and great precision, which is the only to approach the potential use of military power.
Ranking Member Corker, I know that you wanted to discuss, as you’ve said, why Syria matters to our national security and our strategic interests beyond the compelling humanitarian reasons, and I look forward with Secretary Hagel, General Dempsey to laying that out here this afternoon.
But first, it is important to explain to the American people why we’re here. It’s important for people who may not have caught every component of the news of the course of the Labor Day weekend to join us – all of us – focusing in on what is at stake here.
That’s why the President of the United States made the decision, as he did, contrary to what many people thought he would do, of asking the Congress to join in this decision. We are stronger as a nation when we do that.
So we’re here because against multiple warnings from the President of the United States, from the Congress, from our friends and allies around the world, and even from Russia and Iran, the Assad regime – and only undeniably the Assad regime – unleashed an outrageous chemical attack against its own citizens.
We’re here because a dictator and his family’s personal enterprise in their lust to hold on to power were willing to infect the air of Damascus with a poison that killed innocent mothers and fathers and hundreds of their children – their lives all snuffed out by gas – in the early morning of Aug. 21st.
Some people here and there amazingly have questioned the evidence of this assault on conscience.
I repeat here today that only the most willful desire to avoid reality can assert that this did not occur as described or that the regime did not do it. It did happen, and the Assad regime did it.
And I remember and Secretary Hagel remembers Iraq, General Dempsey especially remembers Iraq. But Secretary Hagel and I and many of you sitting on the dais remember Iraq in a special way because we were here for that vote. We voted. And so we are especially sensitive, Chuck and I, to never again ask any member of Congress to take a vote on faulty intelligence.
And that is why our intelligence community has scrubbed and re-scrubbed the evidence. We have declassified unprecedented amounts of information. And we ask the American people and the rest of the world to judge that information.
We can tell you beyond any reasonable doubt that our evidence proves the Assad regime prepared for this attack, issued instructions to prepare for this attack, warned its own forces to use gas masks.
And we have physical evidence of where the rockets came from and when. Not one rocket landed in regime-controlled territory. Not one. All of them landed in opposition controlled or contested territory.
We have a map – physical evidence – showing every geographical point of impact and that is concrete.
Within minutes of the attack – 90, I think, to be precise, maybe slightly shorter – the social media exploded with horrific images of the damage that have been caused. Men and women, the elderly and children sprawled on the hospital floor with no wounds and no blood but all dead.
Those scenes of human chaos and desperation were not contrived; they were real. No one could contrive such a scene.
We are certain that none of the opposition has the weapons or the capacity to effect a strike of this scale, particularly from the heart of regime territory. Just think about it in logical terms, common sense.
With high confidence, our intelligence community tells us that after the strike, the regime issued orders to stop and then fretted openly – we know – about the possibility of U.N. inspectors discovering evidence. So then they began to systematically try to destroy it.
Contrary to my discussion with their foreign minister, who said “We have nothing to hide”, I said, “If you have nothing to hide, then let the inspectors in today and let it be unrestricted.” It wasn’t; they didn’t. It took four days of shelling before they finally allowed them in under a constrained pre-arranged structure.
And we now have learned that the hair and blood samples from first responders in east Damascus has tested positive for signatures of sarin.
So my colleagues, we know what happened.
For all the lawyers, for all the former prosecutors, for all those who have sat on a jury, I can tell you that we know these things beyond a reasonable doubt that is the standards by which we send people to jail for the rest of their lives.
So we’re here because of what happened two weeks ago. But we’re also here because of what happened nearly a century ago.
In the darkest moments of World War I and after the horror of gas warfare when the vast majority of the world came together to declare in no uncertain terms that chemical weapons cross a line of conscience and they must be banned from use forever.
Over the years that followed, over 180 countries, including Iran, Iraq, and Russia, agreed and they joined the Chemical Weapons Convention. Even countries with whom we agree on little agreed on that conviction.
Some have tried to suggest that the debate we’re having today is about President Obama’s red line. I could not more forcefully state that is just plain and simply wrong.
This debate is about the world’s red line. It’s about humanity’s red line. And it’s a red line anyone with a conscience ought to draw.
This debate is also about Congress’s own red line. You the United States Congress agreed to the Chemical Weapons Convention. You the United States Congress passed the Syria Accountability Act, which says Syria’s chemical weapons “threaten the security of the Middle East and the national security interests of the United States.” You the Congress have spoken out about the grave consequences if Assad in particular used chemical weapons.
So I say to you, Sen. Corker, that is one of the reasons why Syria is important.
And as we debate and the world world watches as you decide and the world wonders not whether Assad’s regime executed the worst chemical weapons attack of the 21st century. That fact, I think, is now beyond question. The world wonders whether the United States of America will consent through silence to standing aside while this kind of brutality is allowed to happen without consequence.
In the nearly 100 years since the first global commitment against chemical weapons, only two tyrants bear the cross of the world’s brightest crime. Now, Bashar al Assad has become the third. And I think all of you know that history holds nothing but infamy for those criminals and history reserves also very little sympathy for their enablers.
So the reality is the gravity of this moment. That is the importance of this decision that this Congress faces and the world is waiting to learn about in these next days.
Now, Ranking Member Corker asked a central question: “Why should Americans care?” beyond what I’ve just said which ought to be enough in the judgment of this President and this administration.
Well, it is clear that in addition to what I’ve just mentioned about the Syria Accountability Act and the threat to the Middle East, we cannot overlook the impact of chemical weapons and the danger that they pose to a particularly volatile area of the world in which we’ve been deeply invested for years because we have great friends there, we have allies there, we have deep interests there.
Since President Obama’s policy is that Assad must go, it is not insignificant that to deprive him of the capacity to use chemical weapons or to degrade the capacity to use those chemical weapons actually deprives him of a lethal weapon in this ongoing civil war and that has an impact. That can help stabilize the region ultimately.
In addition, we have other important strategic national security interests not just in the prevention of the proliferation of chemical weapons but to avoid the creation of a safe haven in Syria or a base of operations for extremists to use these weapons against our friends.
All of us know that the extremes of both sides are there, waiting in the wings, working and pushing and fighting. They’d be desperate to get their hands on these materials.
And the fact is if nothing happens to begin to change the equation on the current calculation, that area can become even more so an area of ungoverned space where those extremists threaten even the United States, and more immediately, if they get their hands on those weapons allies and friends of ours like Jordan, Israel, or Lebanon or others.
Forcing Assad to change his calculation about his ability to act with impunity can contribute to his realization that he cannot gas or shoot his way out of his predicament.
And as I think you know, it has been the President’s primary goal to achieve a negotiated resolution but you’ve got to have parties prepared to negotiate to achieve that.
Syria is also important because quite simply – I can’t put this to you more plainly than to just ask each of you to ask yourselves: If you’re Assad or if you’re any one of the despots in that region and the United States steps back from this moment together with our other allies and friends, what is the message? The message is that he has been granted impunity – the freedom to choose and use the weapons again or force us to go through this cycle again with who knows what outcome after once refusing it. We would have granted him the capacity to use these weapons against more people with greater levels of damage because we would have stood and stepped away.
As confidently as we know what happened in Damascus, my friends, on Aug. 21st, we know that Assad would read our stepping away or our silence as an invitation to use those weapons with impunity.
And in creating impunity, we will be creating opportunity – the opportunity for other dictators and or terrorists to pursue their own weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons.
I will tell you there are some people hoping that the United States Congress doesn’t vote for this very limited request the President’s put before you.
Iran is hoping you’d look the other way. Our inaction would surely give them a permission slip for them to at least misinterpret our intention, if not to put it to the test. Hezbollah is hoping that isolationism will prevail. North Korea is hoping that ambivalence carries the day. They’re all listening for our silence.
And if we don’t answer Assad today, we will erode a standard that has existed for those hundred years. In fact, we will erode a standard that has protected our own troops in war. And we will invite even more dangerous tests down the road.
Our allies and our partners are also counting on us in this situation.
The people of Israel, of Jordan, of Turkey – each look next door and they see that they’re one stiff breeze away from the potential of being hurt, of their civilians being killed as a consequence of choices Assad might take in the absence of action. They anxiously await our assurance that our word means something. They await the assurance that if children lined up in unbloodied burial shrouds were their own children that we would keep the world’s promise. That’s what they’re hoping.
So the authorization that President Obama seeks is definitively in our national security interests. We need to send Syria and to the world, to dictators and to terrorists, to allies, to civilians alike the unmistakable message that when the United States of America and the world say “Never again” we don’t mean sometimes, we don’t mean somewhere. Never means never.
So this is a vote for accountability. Norms and laws that keep the civilized world civil mean nothing if they’re not enforced.
As Justice Jackson said in his opening argument in the Nuremberg trials, “The ultimate step at avoiding periodic wars, which are inevitable in a system of international lawlessness, is to make statesmen responsible for the law.”
If the world’s worst despot see that they can flout with impunity prohibitions against the world’s worst weapons, then those prohibitions are just pieces of paper.
That is what we mean by accountability and that is what we mean by we cannot be silent.
So let me be clear: President Obama is not asking America to go to war. And I say that sitting next to men – Secretary Hagel and Chairman Dempsey – who know what war is. Sen. McCain knows what war is. They know the difference between going to war and what President Obama is requesting now.
We all agree there will be no American boots on the ground. The President has made crystal clear we have no intention of assuming responsibility for Syria’s civil war. He is asking only for the power to make clear – to make certain – that the United States means what we say – that the world will be joined in a multi-lateral statement mean what we say. He’s asking for authorization to degrade and deter Bashar al-Assad’s capacity to use chemical weapons.
Now, some will undoubtedly ask and I think appropriately, “What about the unintended consequences of action?” Some fear retaliation that leads to a larger conflict.
Well, let me put it bluntly, if Assad is arrogant enough – and I would say – foolish enough to retaliate for the consequences of his own criminal activity, the United States and our allies have ample ways to make him regret that decision without going to war.
Even Assad’s supporters – Russia and Iran – say publicly that the use of chemical weapons is unacceptable.
Now, some will also question the extent of our responsibility. To them, I say when someone kills hundreds of children with a weapon the world has banned, we are all responsible. That is true because of treaties like the Geneva Convention and the Chemical Weapons Convention and for us the Syria Accountability Act. But it’s also true because we share a common humanity and a common decency.
This is not the time for arm chair isolationism. This is not the time to be spectators to slaughter. Neither our country nor our conscience can afford the cost of silence.
We have spoken up against unspeakable horror many times in the past. Now we must stand up and act. And we must protect our security, protect our values, and lead the world with conviction that is clear about our responsibility.
- foreign.senate.gov: Video of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the authorization of use of force in Syria on Sept. 3, 2013
- WhatTheFolly.com: Syria: Chemical Weapons
- WhatTheFolly.com: Obama seeks congressional authorization for military strike against Syria
- WhatTheFolly.com: U.S. intel report confirms use of chemical weapons in Syria
- WhatTheFolly.com: Transcript: Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s testimony on Syria before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Sept. 3, 2013
- WhatTheFolly.com: Transcript: President Barack Obama’s remarks on the use of military force in Syria on Sept. 3, 2013
- WhatTheFolly.com: Transcript: UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s press briefing on Syria on Sept. 3, 2013
- WhatTheFolly.com: Transcript: Remarks by President Barack Obama on the use of chemical weapons in Syria
- WhatTheFolly.com: Transcript: Secretary of State John Kerry’s statement on U.S. intel report confirming use of chemical weapons in Syria