Kerry, Hagel & Dempsey urge Senators to authorize military force in response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons

Secretary of State John Kerry (left) and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (right). SOURCE:

Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday to urge lawmakers to authorize the use of military force against the Syrian government in response to its use of chemical weapons two weeks ago. 

The Senate committee is scheduled to receive a classified briefing Wednesday morning with Kerry, Director of National Intelligence Jim Clapper, Vice Admiral Kurt Tidd from the Pentagon, and ODNI Under Secretary of Defense for Policy James Miller. The committee will thereafter mark up a joint resolution on the “authorization for the use of military force against the government of Syria to respond to use of chemical weapons.”

Read more: U.S. intel report confirms use of chemical weapons in Syria

Kerry testified that more than 1,400 people – including at least 400 children – were killed in chemical weapons attacks carried out by the Syrian government in suburbs east of Damascus on Aug. 21st. He said hair and blood samples collected from first responders in eastern Damascus have “tested positive for signature of sarin”, a deadly nerve agent long banned by the international community.

“We’re here because a dictator [Assad] 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,” said Kerry.

Kerry said there is evidence that proves “beyond a reasonable doubt” that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces prepared for and carried out the Ghouta chemical attacks.

Referencing the faulty intelligence used to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Kerry assured lawmakers that the intelligence community has “scrubbed and re-scrubbed the evidence” proving Assad’s responsibility for the Aug. 21st attacks and ruling out any involvement by the Syrian opposition.

“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,” said Kerry, who pointed out that “not one rocket landed in regime-controlled territory. Not one. All of them landed in opposition controlled or contested territory.”

“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,” said Kerry.

Kerry argued that the U.S. needs to respond with military action because Assad’s use of the banned weapons of mass destruction cross the “red line” drawn by the international community, by Congress, and the President.

A failure to respond, Kerry warned, will set a dangerous precedent and send a signal to Assad that he could escalate the use of weapons of mass destruction without real consequence.

“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,” said Kerry. “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.”

Doing nothing, Kerry said, would also send the wrong message to countries like North Korea and Iran, which are both developing nuclear capabilities, as well as terrorist groups seeking to expand their weapons capabilities.

“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,” Kerry warned.

While Kerry’s remarks focused on the moral outrage, Hagel’s testimony outlined the geo-political risks and national security threats posed by Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons.

First, Hagel noted that countries bordering Syria, which include friends of the U.S., such as Israel, Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq face “grave risks”. The use and effects of the chemical weapons could spread beyond the borders of Syria and destabilize the region further as these neighboring countries are struggling to handle the more than 2 million refugees who have fled Syria.

Furthermore, Hagel claimed that Assad’s regime’s close relationship with Hezbollah – which the U.S. has designated as a terrorist organization – could mean that some of the chemical weapons may fall into the hands of hostile non-state actors. Hagel acknowledged that there are also extreme elements on the opposition side that could acquire these weapons of mass destruction.

“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,” said Hagel. “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.”

Hagel said the President is asking Congress to authorize military action that will be “limited in duration and scope”, implying no involvement of U.S. troops on the ground in Syria.

He emphasized that the U.S. military objective would be to simply “hold the Assad regime accountable, degrade its ability to carry out these kinds of attacks, and deter the regime from further use of chemical weapons“. Hagel underscored that the military actions are taken in response to the use of chemical weapons and not intended to “resolve underlying conflicts in Syria.”

“A political solution created by the Syrian people is the only way to end the violence in Syria,” said Hagel.

However, both Hagel and Kerry pointed out that military strikes that either degrade or deprive Assad of the capacity to use chemical weapons could force him to “change his calculation” and make it clear that “he cannot gas or shoot his way out of his predicament.”

In addition to military strikes, Hagel said the U.S. will step up assistance to the Syrian opposition. The hope is that doing so would help level the playing field and give the Syrian opposition a better chance at toppling Assad and bring about an end to the two-year civil war that has killed more than 100,000 Syrians.

“That can help stabilize the region ultimately,” said Kerry.

Addressing the concerns raised by some lawmakers that the military strikes would prompt retaliations resulting in the escalation of the conflict, Kerry said that the U.S. would still be able to handle the situation without going to war.

“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,” said Kerry, although he did not elaborate on what those measures are and why the U.S. would not employ before resorting to military strikes.

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