Syrian chemical weapons personnel under the chain of command of the Syrian Ministry of Defense prepared for three days before Syrian military units, instructed to don gas masks, fired rockets containing nerve gas into opposition-held villages in the Damascus suburbs on August 21st, killing over 1,400 people in the largest chemical weapons attack in a quarter century, the United States said Friday.
“The primary question is really no longer: What do we know?” Secretary of State John Kerry said in a powerful call to action from the State Department Friday, as the U.S. released a declassified, four-page intelligence assessment on the attack. “The question is: What are…we in the world going to do about it?”
“History would judge us all extraordinarily harshly if we turned a blind eye to a dictator’s wanton use of weapons of mass destruction against all warnings, against all common understanding of decency,” Kerry warned.
The release of the U.S. intelligence case (map) and Kerry’s call for resolve came after President Obama met again with his national security cabinet Friday morning on Syria, amid daily intensified preparations for almost certain U.S.-led military strikes in Syria in the coming days. But the Obama administration suffered a blow when the British parliament voted early Friday against UK participation in any international Syria action. France, however said Friday, it would participate, and was sending two frigates to the area where the U.S. has already sent five warships.
President Obama said Friday he was still deliberating and consulting with lawmakers over potential military options. But he expressed wary resolve to conduct “limited” action in Syria that would not, he reiterated, involve boots on the ground, to deter chemical weapons use.
“We cannot accept a world where women and children and innocent civilians are gassed on a terrible scale,” Obama said in remarks at the White House Friday, adding that “part of the challenge that we end up with here is that a lot of people think something should be done, but nobody wants to do it.”
Kerry made a far more impassioned case for the necessity of international action to deter not just the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons, but regimes around the world which he said are closely “watching” how the United States and others react.
“They want to see whether the United States and our friends mean what we say,” Kerry warned, in what seemed a pointed rebuke of the UK parliamentary vote, which was hailed by Russia Friday. “They are watching to see if Syria can get away with it, because then maybe they too can put the world at greater risk.”
But Kerry, like Obama, also acknowledged American public weariness about another military intervention in the Middle East, and promised Syria intelligence and intervention would not be “a repeat” of Iraq.
“Our intelligence community has carefully reviewed and re-reviewed information regarding this attack, and I will tell you it has done so more than mindful of the Iraq experience,” Kerry said, urging the public to read it for themselves. ‘We will not repeat that moment.”
The narrative Kerry and other administration and intelligence officials described in briefings Friday suggested that the Syrian regime was frustrated by a protracted fight with opposition-held and contested villages in the Damascus suburbs, and employed the chemical weapons so it could speed up the fight and surge military resources to Aleppo. The Syrian regime has increasingly employed chemical weapons since 2012 as a regular tool in its military arsenal, but never before on this scale, officials said.
“We know that the regime was specifically determined to rid the Damascus suburbs of the opposition, and it was frustrated that it hadn’t succeeded in doing so,” Kerry said.
“Unfortunately,.. the regime considers the chemical weapons in its portfolio of military use,” a senior U.S. administration official said in the White House background call Friday. “It is not considered an extraordinary measure. It is not used only in particular cases. In this case, [they] chose to use it in a densely populated area, and it obviously had horrendous effects.”
In total, at least 1,429 Syrians, including 426 children, were killed in the nerve gas attack last week, Kerry said.
In the aftermath of the attack, among other intelligence collected from both secret and open sources, U.S. intelligence intercepted communications of a senior regime official referencing the use of chemical weapons, and expressing concern about the UN weapons inspectors detecting it, Kerry and senior U.S. Administration Officials said in a subsequent White House background telephone briefing Friday.
“We know that a senior regime official who knew about the attack confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime, reviewed the impact, and actually was afraid that they would be discovered,” Kerry said Friday, adding, in a reference US officials later acknowledged was US signals intelligence of the communication, “We know this.”
As the Obama administration ramped up its preparations for likely action, the UN chemical weapons inspectors completed their work in Syria on Friday, and were all due to be out of the country by Saturday morning, the UN said. The UN’s disarmament chief Angela Kane departed Damascus and was en route to New York and will brief Secretary General Ban ki-Moon and then the Permanent Five members of the UN Security Council on Saturday, the UN said. The Security Council has remained deadlocked on Syria for over two and a half years due to Russian support for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and veto of any prospective measures against his regime.
The UN is due to hold a rare press conference on Saturday, but UN officials said they didn’t expect the inspection team to release its report until all of its lab testing of samples collected in Syria was completed, in what could take several days.
Kerry said Friday the United States would not wait for the UN report because the inspectors’ mandate does not permit it to attribute culpability, the U.S. already has the information it needs, and because the Syrian regime did not grant the inspectors access for five days while they intensified their shelling of the villages in what the U.S. has said was a deliberate attempt to destroy evidence of the chemical attack.
(Photo: President Barack Obama meets with his National Security Staff to discuss the situation in Syria, in the Situation Room of the White House, Aug. 30, 2013. From left at the table: National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice; Attorney General Eric Holder; Secretary of State John Kerry; and Vice President Joe Biden. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.)