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Joshua Hersh Headshot
Sabrina Siddiqui Headshot

John Kerry Makes Case For Syria Strike, But Questions Linger

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WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State John Kerry said Friday that there was "no doubt" the Syrian regime used chemical weapons in a devastating attack last week that killed more than 1,400 people, pointing to a newly released White House intelligence report that leaves unresolved whether President Bashar Assad himself ordered the attack.

Kerry's speech made clear that the United States was preparing for strikes on Assad's government, even as the United Kingdom declined to join in the military effort.

"Its findings are as clear as they are compelling," Kerry said of the report. "I'm not asking you to take my word for it, read for yourself."

But while the report assessed with "high confidence" that the Syrian government had used a nerve agent in the Aug. 21 attack, which U.S. intelligence believes killed at least 1,429 people including 426 children, it stopped short of conclusively demonstrating that Syrian President Bashar Assad himself, as opposed to a more junior officer, had ordered it. Details on what led the intelligence community to its conclusion were slim in the unclassified version of the report released to the public.

"We know that for three days before the attack, the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons personnel were on the ground in the area, making preparations," Kerry said.

The preparations included, he said, putting on gas masks.

"This is what Assad did to his own people," Kerry said. If the US and world allowed "a thug and a murderer like Bashar al-Assad" to get away with gassing his own people, he added, "there will be no end to the test of our resolve and the dangers that will flow from those others who believe that they can do as they will."

“We do assess that [Assad] is the decision-maker, and that he's ultimately in charge of deployment,” a senior administration official said in a conference call with reporters on Friday afternoon.

The only question remaining in the aftermath of the chemical attack, Kerry said, was, "what are we and the world going to do about it?" Presumably referencing a "red line" that President Barack Obama drew last August on the use of chemical weapons in Syria, Kerry also said the United States had to act because its credibility and interests were on the line.

“Our intelligence community has carefully reviewed and re-reviewed the information regarding this attack,” Kerry said on Friday. “It has done so more than mindful of the Iraq experience, and we will not repeat that moment.”

Over the past week, a series of intelligence community leaks have indicated that the evidence behind the chemical attack -- and specifically the question of what role Assad himself played in ordering it -- remains relatively weak.

In an Associated Press report on Thursday, one government official was quoted as saying the data was “no slam dunk.”

"It's unclear where control lies," another U.S. intelligence official told Foreign Policy earlier in the week. "Is there just some sort of general blessing to use these things? Or are there explicit orders for each attack?"

The release by the Obama administration on Friday sought to address those intelligence gaps, although it did not offer specific data on the link between Assad and the attack. Instead, it focused on circumstantial indications: the fact that the chemical-laden rockets were all fired from regime-held areas into rebel-held ones, and an intercepted communication from a senior regime official that apparently confirmed the use of the weapons.

The Syrian government's motivation for launching a massive chemical weapons strike that was sure to cross Obama's "red line" remained unclear.

The intelligence assessment said the regime's "frustration" with its inability to clear swaths of the Damascus suburbs home to opposition forces "may have" contributed to its decision. Independent analysts were puzzled by the Syrian move, with some suggesting it could have been a mistake by a lower-ranking official.

The Obama administration's findings closely mirror those in a similar brief released Thursday by British intelligence just before the U.K. parliament voted down Prime Minister David Cameron's bid to have the country take part in a strike against Syria, by a vote of 285-272.

It was a stunning defeat for Cameron, who acknowledged after the vote that "the British Parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action" and said that the government would "act accordingly."

The British assessment concluded that it was “highly likely” that the Syrian regime had been behind the attacks, and that there was “no credible intelligence or other evidence” to support allegations that other forces, such as the rebels themselves, might have carried them out. But it also acknowledged having limited insight into the regime's “precise motivation” for using chemical weapons, particularly at a moment when United Nations chemical-weapons inspectors were staying at a hotel just miles away.

The British parliament's rejection of military action in Syria sparked questions on whether the U.S. would "fly solo" in its operation, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel also refused her government's assistance for airstrikes in Syria. But French President Francois Hollande expressed his willingness Friday to proceed with plans to strike Syria over its use of chemical weapons.

"The chemical massacre of Damascus cannot and must not remain unpunished," Hollande said.

The administration's intelligence brief was designed to assuage the concerns of both the public and a deeply uneasy Congress. Polls indicate that the American public is highly skeptical of launching a strike on Syria without congressional backing.

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have urged the president to hold more consultations with members of Congress and not act unilaterally. Many Republicans, joined by a growing number of Democrats, have demanded a vote in Congress to authorize the use of military force.

While the White House is unlikely to seek congressional approval, the administration stepped up its deliberations with lawmakers Thursday. Obama called House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), whose office followed up with a statement calling on the president to provide a more robust explanation to both members of Congress and the American public.

Top administration officials also held a 90-minute conference call Thursday evening with congressional leaders and the chairs and ranking members of national security committees. During the call, lawmakers were briefed on the administration's approach and rationale for military involvement by Kerry, national security advisor Susan Rice, defense secretary Chuck Hagel, director of national intelligence James Clapper, and Sandy Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said after the call that he would support "surgical, proportional military strikes," but the administration "would be far better off if they seek [congressional] authorization."

Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, told The Huffington Post that members of Congress who sit on the relevant intelligence committees have "been continually supplied with classified info."

She added that they will receive the classified version of Friday's chemical weapons assessment "at some point today," and that the administration will hold classified briefings for its staff this afternoon.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) issued a statement on the Thursday briefing in which she said Assad had acted "outside the realm of basic human rights." But she added that she agreed with Boehner and other members that the administration must engage in further consultation with Congress and provide greater transparency into the decision-making process and timing.

"The case needs to be made to the American people," Pelosi said. "It is clear that the American people are weary of war."

UPDATE: 2:50 p.m. -- Obama addressed reporters at the White House later on Friday, emphasizing that he had not made any decisions about what actions the U.S. will take against Syria but adding that he is considering a "limited narrow act."

"We're not considering any open ended commitment," Obama said. "We're not considering any boots on the ground approach."

"We are looking at the possibility of a limited, narrow act that would help make sure that not only Syria but others around the world understand that the international community cares about maintaining this chemical weapons ban," he said. "I have not made a final decision about various actions that might be taken to help enforce that norm, but as I've already said, I have had my military and our team look at a wide range of options. We have consulted with allies. We've consulted with Congress."

The president acknowledged that many people, including himself, are "war weary."

"There is a certain weariness, given Afghanistan. There is a certain suspicion of any military action post-Iraq," Obama said, adding that he appreciated the skepticism. "It’s important for us to recognize that when over a thousand people are killed, including hundreds of innocent children, through the use of a weapon that 98 or 99 percent of humanity says should not be used even in war, and there is no action, then we’re sending a signal … that is a danger to our national security."

Matt Sledge reported from New York, Sabrina Siddiqui reported from Washington, D.C., and Joshua Hersh reported from Beirut, Lebanon.

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