Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday began laying out the US case for limited international military action in Syria, saying it is “undeniable” that chemical weapons were used in a mass casualty attack last week that he described as a “moral obscenity” that shocks “the conscience of the world.”
“Anyone who can claim that an attack of this staggering scale could be contrived or fabricated needs to check their conscience and their own moral compass,” Kerry said at a news conference at the State Department on Monday. “What is before us today is real, and it is compelling.”
“Make no mistake: President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world’s most heinous weapons against the world’s most vulnerable people,” Kerry said.
Kerry’s unusually forceful comments came as a United Nations chemical weapons inspection team got its first access to the site of the alleged chemical attack, in the outskirts of Damascus, five days after it occurred.
Kerry said the fact that the Syrian government did not agree to grant access to the site before Sunday and carried on shelling and attacking the area was an attempt to destroy evidence.
“I spoke on Thursday with Syrian Foreign Minister [Walid] Muallim and I made it very clear to him that if the regime, as he argued, had nothing to hide, then their response should be immediate – immediate transparency, immediate access – not shelling,” Kerry said. “Failure to permit that, I told him, would tell its own story.”
“Instead, for five days, the Syrian regime refused to allow the UN investigators access to the site of the attack that would allegedly exonerate them,” Kerry said. “Instead, it attacked the area further, shelling it and systematically destroying evidence. That is not the behavior of a government that has nothing to hide.”
“The regime’s belated decision to allow access is too late, and it’s too late to be credible,” Kerry said.
Kerry said the US has additional intelligence attributing the attack to Syrian forces including from partners that it was reviewing with allies and would start presenting to the public in the coming days.
Even as the U.S. began laying out its case for action, Moscow was ratcheting up arguments against any sort of Syria intervention, and casting doubt on western assessments of Syrian culpability. Russian President Vladimir Putin, speaking in a phone call with British Prime Minister David Cameron Monday, reportedly insisted that there had been no chemical weapons attack in Syria at all.
His Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, at a news conference Monday, expressed doubts about the veracity of amateur videos of the alleged attack in Ghouta, and railed against the U.S.-led interventions in Iraq and Libya.
But Lavrov also signaled Moscow wasn’t planning to become involved in hostilities against western action in Syria. “Of course, we're not going to war with anyone,” Lavrov told the news conference.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Monday the action the US and allies are discussing on Syria is confined to upholding the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons—not regime change. The United States does not think there is a military solution to the Syrian conflict, Carney said at a White House press briefing Monday.
Russia also signaled its continued commitment to Syria political transition talks expected to be held in Geneva in the fall.