After nearly a week of internal deliberations and international debate over what appeared to be a chemical weapons attack in Syria, Secretary of State John Kerry made it clear on Monday where America stands — and where it believes the blame rests.
In a short statement at the State Department in front of reporters, Kerry delivered by far the most forceful message that has come out of the Obama Administration since the Syrian regime allegedly gassed hundreds of civilians in a suburb of the capital Damascus.
“Let me be clear,” he Kerry. “The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders, by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity. There is a reason that President Obama has made clear to the Assad regime that this international norm cannot be violated without consequences.”
Kerry’s speech came a day after American and European intelligence officials issued various statements that asserted with near certainty that Bashar al-Assad’s regime was responsible for the heinous gas attack in the middle of the night when most of the victims were asleep in their homes. Foreign ministers, including Britain’s William Hague and France’s Laurent Fabius, issued equally forceful public statements over the weekend, lambasting the Assad regime’s decision to use weapons that are prohibited by international law. Fabius, in a heated exchange on French radio, went as far as to suggest that the international community needs to respond to the atrocity with “force.”
Barack Obama has otherwise been a relatively cautious and risk adverse leader, preferring to use diplomacy as his first course of action. If force is used, as in Libya, Obama reaches out to allies in the hope that the global community will tackle the problem together. But with horrifying images circulating in social media, depicting dozens upon dozens of young children murdered in the gas attack — and with Congress pushing for more aggressive action — the president clearly finds himself close to a decision on the use of military force even if few NATO allies are willing to intervene.
After a three hour meeting of the National Security Council at the White House last Saturday, the American armed forces took preliminary steps in the event that the president approves military options. Two more warships were moved off the coast of Syria, stocked with Tomahawk cruise missiles that could be used against a variety of Syrian government targets. Reports suggest that the administration is trying to find a way to authorize military action without the blessing of the United Nations Security Council where China and Russia would likely block intervention.
Despite the fact that United Nations weapons inspectors are now on the ground in Damascus searching for definitive proof of chemical weapons use, American officials appear unwilling to wait for the investigation to conclude before taking action against Assad.
Any military action is likely to be quick, direct and relatively risk free for American and allied personnel. It is highly unlikely that NATO troops will be deployed in Syria, nor will there be a vast and expensive invasion to remove Assad’s government. Launching cruise missiles against government and military targets, perhaps including chemical weapons sites, is the most politically acceptable option in both Europe and the United States where public support for getting involved in the civil war is low.
Cruise missile strikes, however, will not be enough to cripple the Syrian army’s or weaken it to a point where rebels in the country are able to make steady territorial advances without strong government resistance. If there is no invasion or a coordinated air campaign against Syrian military targets, Assad will likely continue to have a destructive, if degraded, war machine to keep opponents away from the presidential palace.
Even with a seaborne missile strike, the civil war could go on — and the international community will likely continue to struggle itself to find a political resolution that Syria’s combatants can agree to.