Kerry says 'indiscriminate' Syria chemical attack 'undeniable'

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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. Continue reading

Obama: Syria chemical attack would cross U.S. 'core national interests'


President Obama said Friday the United States was consulting with allies and considering how to respond if an investigation determines that Syria used chemical weapons in an alleged attack on rebel-held villages in the eastern Damascus suburbs of Ghouta this week.

“Although the situation in Syria is very difficult…there is no doubt that when you start seeing chemical weapons used on a large scale… then that starts getting to some core national interests that the United States has, both in terms of us making sure that weapons of mass destruction are not proliferating, as well as needing to protect our allies, our bases in the region,” Obama told CNN’s Chris Cuomo in an interview aired Friday.

“We are right now gathering information about this particular event,” Obama continued, “but I can say that, unlike some of the evidence that we were trying to get earlier that led to a U.N. investigator going into Syria, what we've seen indicates that this is clearly a big event of grave concern.”

While the U.S., Europeans and Russia have called on the Syrian government to allow UN inspectors access to the site, “we don’t expect cooperation, given their past history,” Obama said.

But Obama also expressed caution about another military entanglement, and justified the more limited U.S. response to past events in the Syrian conflict that has killed over 100,000 people.

“That does not mean that we have to get involved with everything immediately,” he told CNN. “We have to think through strategically what's going to be in our long-term national interests, even as we work cooperatively internationally to do everything we can to put pressure on those who would kill innocent civilians.”

His comments came a day after US military, intelligence and diplomatic officials met for over three hours at the White House Thursday “to deliberate over options, which officials say could range from a cruise missile strike to a more sustained air campaign against Syria,” the New York Times reported. But the meeting concluded with no decision, the paper said, amid continued divisions in Obama's national security team about the consequences of deepening U.S. intervention in Syria.

The U.S. military “can destroy the Syrian Air Force,” top US military officer Gen. Martin Dempsey wrote in a letter to House Foreign Affairs committee ranking Democrat Eliot Engel (D-NY) Monday (Aug 19), two days before the alleged attack in Ghouta. “The loss of Assad’s Air Force would negate his ability to attack opposition forces from the air, but it would also escalate and potentially further commit the United States to the conflict,” while not being “militarily decisive.”

Russia’s Foreign Ministry called Friday on both the Syrian government and the rebels to grant access to Ghouta to a UN chemical weapons inspection team currently in Damascus. Moscow has suggested that the August 21st attack in eastern Ghouta may have been staged by the opposition as a “pre-planned provocation.”

But British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Friday that the chances that the rebels conspired to stage the attack are “vanishingly small,” and questioned why the Syrian regime had so far refused permission to the UN team to visit the area.

“It seems the Assad regime has something to hide,” Hague told the BBC Friday. “Why else have they not allowed the UN team to go there?”

The attack is “not something that a humane or civilized world can ignore,” Hague said.

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White House: UN needs immediate access to Syria site

The White House on Wednesday demanded that United Nations inspectors be given immediate access to a site near Damascus where Syrian opposition activists claimed hundreds were killed in an overnight nerve gas attack.

“If the Syrian government has nothing to hide and is truly committed to an impartial and credible investigation of chemical weapons use in Syria, it will facilitate the UN team’s immediate and unfettered access to this site,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said in a statement Wednesday.

“We are working urgently to gather additional information,” Earnest said.

The allegations of a new chemical attack in eastern Ghouta, near Damascus, came just two days after a UN chemical weapons inspection team arrived in Syria, after months of protracted negotiations. The White House on Wednesday joined the United Kingdom, France and Saudi Arabia in demanding that the inspectors be allowed immesiate, unfettered access to the site.

The United Nations Security Council was also expected to hold an emergency session on the new Syrian chemical claims on Wednesday.

The latest grim allegations came as the top US military officer said Syria’s divided rebels are not ready for U.S. military intervention to hasten the fall of Bashar al-Assad.

“Syria today is not about choosing between sides, but rather about choosing one among many sides,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote in a letter (.pdf) to House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking Democrat Elliot Engel.

“It is my belief that the side we choose must be ready to promote their interests and ours when the balance shifts in their favor,” Dempsey continued in the letter, which is dated August 19th. “Today, they are not. … Violent struggles for power will continue after Assad’s rule ends. We should evaluate the effectiveness of limited military options in this context.”

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NPR’s Deborah Amos reports on Syria from front lines


We are “two and a half years into” the Syria war, “and not even half way” through, says Deborah Amos, veteran National Public Radio Middle East correspondent, who has covered the brutal conflict that has killed 100,000 Syrians, and made almost 2 million refugees. “Everyone has to get used to that.”

The conflict’s battle lines have shifted in recent months, suggesting Syrian regime forces are moving to carve out a “little Syria,” and ensure its access to supply lines in Lebanon, Amos said in a telephone interview with Al-Monitor Friday (August 2) during a break in the United States.

“What you've got now” is a battle between regime and rebel forces “for roads and access,” Amos said.  “It used to be for checkpoints and military installations. But now, the regime has to be sure it has access from Lebanon into Syria.” The rebels, meantime, “focus on access to Jordan and Turkey.”

“This is what the war’s about now,” Amos said, describing the virtual four “walls” of Little Syria as including Homs to the north, Palmyra to the east, the Lebanese border and coast to the West.

The road to the Geneva 2 peace conference may be long, Amos said, observing neither side wants to go to talks when the other side has the upper hand, but is unlikely to negotiate when strong. “So nobody is willing to negotiate.”

“I think Bashar [Assad] has changed his definition of winning,” Amos mused, noting his recent proclamations of the past weeks, joining of Instagram, and visit to Dariya, which his forces have not been entirely able to take from rebels. Continue reading

Brahimi on Syria: 'We need to get out of this vicious circle'

UN Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said Monday that divisions in the Syrian opposition are a key factor delaying a planned peace conference, as well as remaining differences between Washington and Moscow over who should attend.

“The opposition is divided, that is no secret,” Brahimi, speaking at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Monday, in response to a question from Al-Monitor about why the Geneva II conference has been pushed back until at least the fall.

“They are trying to get their act together, [and] work their way to a truly representative delegation,” he said. “So that is one of the problems.”

Praising the May 7th agreement reached by US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to hold a peace conference as a “huge step,” Brahimi however acknowledged that the two powers still have disagreements, including over whether Iran should be invited.

“No doubt there are differences about who should come,” Brahimi said. “That is not worked out yet.” Kerry and Lavrov are expected to meet in the next couple weeks, when Lavrov travels to New York and Washington, Brahimi said.

“The UN has made very clear that [it thinks]… all countries with interests and/or influence [in Syria] should attend Geneva,” he said.

Brahimi was in Washington Monday as a member of a group of retired world leaders involved in peace-making work called the Elders, that includes former US President Jimmy Carter, South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, Finnish Nobel Laureate Martti Ahtisaari, Ireland’s Mary Robinson, and former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, who preceded Brahimi as the joint UN/Arab League special envoy on Syria. Brahimi, Carter, Ahtisaari and Robinson met Monday with US Secretary of State John Kerry and US National Security Advisor Susan Rice to discuss Kerry’s Middle East peace efforts and Syria.

“There is no military solution,” Brahimi, 79, said. “We are still working [out] accumulated differences amongst ourselves. But I think we’re moving forward. The opposition is working its way slowly… If it gets [its representation worked out], it’s not time wasted, but time gained.”

He responded obliquely to a question about whether he believes Syrian President Bashar Assad will have to leave power – a key demand of the Syrian opposition. The 30 June 2012 Geneva declaration, approved by both Washington and Moscow, calls for the creation of a governing body that would have full executive power, and that would govern the country until elections take place, he said. Continue reading

Envoy: US ‘appalled’ by reported killing of priest in Syria

A top US diplomat has strongly condemned the reported killing by rebels of a Catholic priest at a monastery in Syria's northwestern Idlib province earlier this week.

“We are appalled by reports that extremist rebels killed Father François Mourad earlier this week when they looted a monastery in Idlib province,” US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford said in a statement posted Saturday to the US Embassy in Syria’s Facebook page. “This unprovoked violence against civilians is completely unacceptable, and we condemn it in the strongest possible terms.”

“We call on all Syrians to protect and respect the rights of all civilians, regardless of ethnicity, gender, or religion,” Ford’s statement said.  “No matter how depraved the Asad regime is, committing atrocities under the guise of fighting is unjustifiable.”

Father François Mourad died June 24th at the Franciscan monastery of St. Anthony of Padua, in Ghassanieh, Syria, “where he had sought refuge some time ago,” the Pro Terra Sancta website, affiliated with his Franciscan of the Holy Land order, wrote June 25th.

The circumstances of his death are still not very clear,” the website said. “According to one version a bullet entered the monastery and struck the priest, while other sources maintain that the homicide took place while the monastery was being looted by rebels.” Continue reading

G-8 urges Syria peace conference, France says Iran’s Rouhani could attend


G-8 leaders pressed Tuesday for Syria transition talks to get underway in Geneva “as soon as possible,” but Russia and western powers remain divided on other key issues.

Meantime, in a shift, France said Tuesday it would be willing to have Iran’s President-elect Hassan Rouhani attend the Geneva II Syria peace conference, following the moderate’s surprise victory in Iran presidential elections last week.

“My position is that if he [Rouhani] can be useful, yes, he would be welcome” at the Geneva conference, French President Francois Hollande said Tuesday on the sidelines of the G-8 summit in Lough Erne, Northern Ireland, Agence France Press reported. France previously opposed Iran's attendance at the Geneva conference, while Russia has argued that Iran should be at the table.

A joint communique issued Tuesday by the G-8 powers-—the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, Japan and Russia—”strongly” endorsed plans for the Syria peace conference to be held “as soon as possible,” to “implement fully the Geneva Communiqué of 30 June 2012, which sets out a number of key steps beginning with agreement on a transitional governing body with full executive powers, formed by mutual consent,” the document states.

“We remain committed to achieving a political solution to the crisis based on a vision for a united, inclusive and democratic Syria,” it says.

The document calls for the al Qaeda-linked al Nusra Front to leave Syria, but does not call on the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah to withdraw its fighters from Syria. It also does not mention Bashar al-Assad even once.

American officials pointed to its call for a transition body with full executive authority to be established out of the Geneva meeting as an important area of Russian-western consensus, as well as its demand that Syria give the United Nations access to investigate alleged chemical weapons use.

“There’s agreement with the Russians that there needs to be a path to political transition, that the status quo is unacceptable, and what needs to be focused on is stability for the Syrian people,” State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki told journalists at the State Department press briefing Tuesday.

“Our position… is there is no role for Assad in Syria,” Psaki said. “However, there is a [place] for those in the regime who are willing to accept the end of Assad’s reign and work for a better future for Syria.”

Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Beth Jones are due to hold another preparatory meeting with Russian and UN officials next week in Geneva, the State Department said Tuesday. It wasn't clear if the conference would be held in July, or would be pushed back. Continue reading

Martin Indyk: ‘We’re at a tipping point’ in Syria


Doha, Qatar__“We’re at a tipping point in Syria,” Martin Indyk, vice president of the Brookings Institution and one of the architects of Middle East policy under former President Bill Clinton, told Al-Monitor in an interview in Doha Tuesday.

“I don’t know what President Obama will decide,” Indyk, speaking at the conclusion of the US-Islamic World Forum in Doha, said, regarding reports the White House is meeting this week to consider possibly coming out in support of lethal aid to the Syria rebels.

“I think the objective now is to help the opposition stave off further defeats. The Iranians and Hezbollah have intervened in a dramatic way with troops and weapons and this has led to a total imbalance on the battlefield. This is external intervention to try to ensure Assad survives.

“There can’t be any political solution based on an agreement on a post-Assad transition if Assad thinks he is going to see victory,” Indyk, who served as the Clinton era envoy to Israel and Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, said. “So we’re at a tipping point. We’ve got to tip the balance back the other way. […] Whether the British and French with our support, or our lead, it doesn’t matter, [if] that staves off defeat. That’s urgent.”

But any decision to provide lethal aid and organizational support to the Syrian rebels “has to be part of an overall strategy which begins with an effort to achieve a political solution,” Indyk continued. “Geneva provides a framework for that. We can’t get to Geneva if Assad thinks he’s winning on the battlefield.”

“What happens on the battlefield determines what happens in the conference room,” Indyk said. “If [the conflict is] stalemated, [it’s more likely] you can get a political agreement.”

Indyk said he doesn’t believe Russia gave a green light to the recent Hezbollah actions in Syria.

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Top US Syria envoy expected to step down


The top US diplomat on Syria Robert Ford plans to step down this summer, several US officials tell the Back Channel.

Ford, who was confirmed as US Ambassador to Syria in 2011 after serving there since 2010 under a recess appointment, saw his job transformed by the unrest that has long since escalated into a full scale civil war. Earlier this month Ford traveled into Syria from Turkey with a convoy of US food aid, to meet with Syrian rebel commanders and urge them to support transition talks planned to be held in Geneva next month.

Ford was again in Turkey Wednesday trying, along with his French, Arab and Turkish diplomatic colleagues, to push Syria’s opposition to agree to expand and diversify its leadership ranks.

He is said by multiple officials to be exhausted, including from his efforts trying to unify the fractious Syrian opposition. The Back Channel was unable to reach Ford Wednesday.

Ford is expected to stay on for the Syria peace conference in Geneva next month, and possibly step aside in July. (One source thought Ford might next take a job at the State Department Inspector General office, but that couldn’t be confirmed.) It is still unclear who will succeed him in the Syria job, or if the role might be revamped to create a special US envoy to the Syrian opposition, State Department sources said.

(The Back Channel previously reported that US Middle East peace envoy David Hale will be nominated to be the next US Ambassador to Lebanon. Secretary of State John Kerry’s Middle East senior advisor Frank Lowenstein is expected to succeed Hale working the Middle East peace portfolio that Kerry has personally spearheaded. US Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson will be nominated to be the next Assistant Secretary of State for the Near Eastern Affairs.)

Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Beth Jones will travel to Geneva next week to meet Russian counterparts to prepare for the Geneva 2 conference, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki announced Wednesday.

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Jordan hails US-Russia plans for Syria peace conference


Jordan’s Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh, meeting with US Secretary of state John Kerry in Rome Thursday, threw his support behind the US-Russian call for a Syria peace conference later this month. With over 500,000 Syrian refugees and 2,000 more coming every day, Jordan’s envoy said it’s imperative that a transition get underway to a political resolution that preserves Syria’s multi-ethnic society and borders.

“We are extremely encouraged by the results of the Secretary’s meetings in Moscow with the President and with the Foreign Minister and salute your achievements in that regard by identifying a path forward,” Judeh said at a meeting with Kerry at the US ambassador’s residence in Rome Thursday.

Jordan’s position, Judeh said, is that there “has to be a transitional period that results in a political solution that includes all the segments of Syrian society, no exclusion whatsoever…preserves Syria’s territorial integrity and unity, and…guarantees… pluralism and opportunity for everybody.”

Judeh said he was heading to Moscow Thursday for further discussions.  On Tuesday, Judeh issued a joint call  with Iran’s visiting Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi for both sides in Syria’s civil war to enter talks on a transition government.

Kerry, on the final leg of a trip to Moscow and Rome, said Thursday that he had sent US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford on to Istanbul to meet with the Syrian opposition and begin work to persuade them to come to the peace conference. They have expressed misgivings because it would get underway before any agreement on the departure of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, although US officials insist US policy hasn’t changed and that they do not see any possibility where Assad could remain the leader of Syria. Continue reading