Secretary of State John Kerry speaks on Syria at the State Department in Washington on Aug. 26. (Jewel Samad / AFP via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration on Monday turned up the rhetorical heat on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, signaling a new Middle East conflict could be imminent.
Secretary of State John Kerry, in a blistering statement, said the administration has examined allegations that Assad’s forces used chemical weapons and concluded those charges “are real.”
“What is before us today ... is compelling,” Kerry told reporters at the State Department. “It is grounded in facts.”
Kerry several times said “we know” Assad’s military possesses chemical weapons and the platforms needed to deliver them.
Kerry — and White House press secretary Jay Carney in a separate briefing — said Assad’s forces have been shelling the site of the chemical attack since it occurred on Aug. 21. “That is not the action of a regime (that) has nothing to hide,” Kerry said.
Carney noted that “even Iran and Russia ... agree with us” that a chemical attacked occurred on that date.
America’s top diplomat, in a revelation that could prove the beginning of the end of Assad’s tenure and his nation’s bloody civil war, noted the symptoms of victims of the chemical attack “strongly indicate” Assad’s forces used the deadly weapons.
In a sign that Washington may soon launch another military conflict in the Middle East, Kerry concluded his remarks by saying President Obama believes Assad and his regime must be held accountable for an action the international community agrees is “a moral obscenity.”
“This international norm” that opposes chemical weapons “cannot be violated without consequences,” Kerry said.
Late last Friday, U.S. officials confirmed Washington had moved naval ships with long-range strike capability closer to Syria. That appeared to prompt Assad to agree to allow in a United Nations inspection team to examine the site of a reported chemical weapons attack.
However, team members were reportedly shot at on Monday between their Damascus hotel and the site. Mere hours after the U.N. confirmed those reports, the Obama administration announced Kerry would speak about the Syrian situation.
Defense analysts and pundits took to social media during and after Kerry’s remarks to predict a U.S. attack is imminent — likely with the help of key NATO and regional allies.
The melting of Obama’s reluctance to act in Syria has been slow.
Last August, Obama declared that should Assad use chemical weapons against Syrian citizens or opposition forces, it would constitute a “red line” for the American commander in chief.
“We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized,” Obama said then. “That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.”
Since then, Obama and other Western and regional officials believe Assad’s forces have done just that several times. Yet Obama has done little to get directly involved, taking only small steps to aid opposition forces.
Richard Haas, a former senior State Department official who now heads the Council on Foreign Relations, tweeted Monday that a “US president cannot say something crosses a red line & then go on with business as usual.”
“What I heard the secretary of state say is that it is undeniable that the ... Syrian government used chemical weapons and that they will be held accountable,” Haas said in a conference call with reporters. “The question is not whether the United States will respond, but how it will respond.”
Later, Carney refused to comment on specific kinds of military options under consideration. But reporters at the White House interpreted some of his remarks as reiterating Obama’s previous public opposition to US ground forces in Syria.
Haas predicted a strike on Syria likely would involve cruise missile strikes or other standoff weapons, which would keep U.S. aircraft outside the range of Syria’s surface-to-air missiles.
“My guess is it will either be sea-launched cruise missiles or something air-launched,” Haas said. “The exact target set isn’t clear. I would think the preferred targets, if they are known, would be anything associated with Syrian chemical weapons capabilities, storage depots or potentially the troops that are believed to be associated with their use.”
Even Democratic lawmakers close to this White House have been calling for a U.S. military mission there for months.
“If there is evidence that the government of Syria has used chemical weapons, and intends to use them in the future, as the president said, ‘This is the red line,’” Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., told sister publication Defense News on Feb. 23.
“You cannot say, ‘This is the red line,’ and then not enforce it,” Feinstein said. “I do not believe that we can countenance any use of chemical weapons.”
But some experts remain opposed to U.S. action in Syria.
“Q: What should the US do when a rogue regime supported by terrorists uses WMD in a war against other terrorists? A: Stay out,” Northeastern University professor Max Abrahms tweeted on Monday.
War watchers in Washington and across the globe are searching for indicators on when Obama might strike and how that would be carried out. One sign will be when the commander in chief or his senior national security aides brief top lawmakers about their strike plans.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, confirmed in a Monday statement that the Obama administration still has yet to do so.
“If he chooses to act, the president must explain his decision publicly, clearly and resolutely,” Boehner said. “The president is commander-in-chief. With that power comes obligations.
“One, of course, is to consult with Congress on the options he sees as a viable response. This consultation has not yet taken place, but it is an essential part of the process,” the speaker said.
Before Obama takes American forces to war, Boehner said, “meaningful consultation [with Congress] should happen.”
Kerry told reporters the White House already has begun consulting members of Congress. But the Republican-controlled House Armed Services Committee reported later it has yet to receive such a call.
“There has been no outreach from the Department of Defense to Chairman McKeon or the House Armed Services Committee since the suspected use of chemical weapons occurred last week,” said Claude Chafin, a spokesman for HASC Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif.
Should Obama launch a strike on Syria, conservative Republican lawmakers likely will repeat their anti-Obama campaign before he launched his 2011 Libya operation. The GOP members hammered Obama for weeks for, as they put it, violating the War Powers Act.
The 1973 statute requires presidents to secure congressional approval for military operations within 60 days, or withdraw forces within the next 30.
Conservative Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., signaled Monday on his Twitter page that such a battle is coming: “War Powers Resolution is consistent w/Constitution: Pres can take unilateral action only pursuant to nat’l emergency.”
Marcus Weisgerber contributed to this report.