Syria: Weighing the Obama Administration's Response

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Opening Remarks Before the House Foreign Affairs Committee
Washington, DC
September 4, 2013

The video is also available with closed captioning on YouTube.

Mr. Chairman, thank you very much, Ranking Member Engel – as the Chairman said, an early congressional leader on Syria – and to all the members of the committee. Let me just say, first of all, that I have enormous respect for the fact that everybody has returned unexpectedly and hurriedly to come back here be part of this debate. And on behalf of the Administration and the American people, I thank you for doing so.

I think it’s – I don’t think, I know it’s no exaggeration to say that the world is not just watching to see what we decide here, but the world is really watching to see how we decide it, frankly whether or not we can still make or achieve a single voice speaking for the United States of America, the Congress and the President of the United States. And they want to know whether or not America is going rise to this moment, whether or not we will express our position with the unity that this moment demands.

The question of whether or not to authorize force, I – the Chairman referenced my 28 years here. I had a number of occasions to make those votes and a number of occasions to make judgments about presidents who acted without coming to Congress. And I found that we were and are always stronger when we can act together.

First and foremost, I think it’s important to explain to the American people why we are here. And I don’t think it can bear enough repetition as people grapple with this at the end of summer, post Labor Day, kids going back to school, and a lot of other concerns on their mind. We’re here because, against the multiple warnings from the President of the United States, warnings from Congress, from many of you, warnings from friends and allies, and even warnings from Russia and Iran that chemical weapons are out of bounds – against all of that the Assad regime – and only, undeniably, the Assad regime – unleashed an outrageous chemical attack against its own citizens. So we’re here because a dictator and his family’s enterprise, which is what it is, were willing to infect the air of Damascus with a poison that killed innocent mothers and fathers and children, their lives all snuffed out by gas during the early morning hours of August 21st.

Now some people in a few places – amazingly, against all the evidence – have questioned whether or not this assault on conscience actually took place. And I repeat again here again today unequivocally: Only the most willful desire to avoid reality, only the most devious political purpose, could assert that this did not occur as described or that the regime did not do it. It did happen and the Bashar al-Assad regime did it.

Now I remember Iraq. And Secretary Hagel, who will soon be here, and General Dempsey, obviously, also remember it very well. Secretary Hagel and I both voted in the United States Senate. And so both of us are especially sensitive to never again asking any member of Congress to vote on faulty intelligence. And that is why our intelligence community took time, that’s why the President took time to make certain of the facts and make certain of this case and to declassify unprecedented amounts of information in order to scrub and rescrub the evidence and present the facts to the American people and especially to the Congress, and through you to the American people.

We have declassified unprecedented amounts of information, some of it, I might add, not because initially that might have been the instinct in the sense of protecting sources and methods. But some leaked, and after its leaking we thought it was important to verify whether it was true or not.

So by now, you have heard a great deal from me and others in the Administration about the comprehensive evidence that we have collected in the days following the attack on August 21, so I’m not going to go through all of it again right now. I’m happy to discuss it further if any of you have any questions. But I can tell you beyond a reasonable doubt – and I used to prosecute cases, I ran one of the largest District Attorney’s offices in America – and I can tell you beyond a reasonable doubt the evidence proves that the Assad regime prepared this attack, and that they attacked exclusively opposition-controlled or contested territory.

Now, at some point in the appropriate setting you will learn additional evidence which came to us even today which further documents the acknowledgement of various friends of the Assad regime that they know that this happened.

Our evidence proves that they used sarin gas that morning. And it proves that they used some of the world’s most heinous weapons to kill more than 1400 innocent people, including at least 426 children.

Now, I’m sure that many of you have seen the images yourselves of men and women, the elderly and children, sprawled on a hospital floor – no wounds, no blood, and chaos and desperation around them – none of which could possibly have been contrived. All of that was real.

We have the evidence. We know what happened. And there is no question that this would meet the standard by which we send people to jail for the rest of their lives.

So we are here because of what happened. But we are also here not just because of what happened two weeks ago. We’re here because of what happened nearly a century ago, when in the darkest moments of World War I when they were over, after the horror of gas warfare, when the majority of the world came together to declare, in no uncertain terms, that chemical weapons crossed a line of conscience and that they must be banned. And over the years that followed, more than 180 countries, I think it’s 184 to be precise – including Iran, Iraq, and Russia, all agreed and joined the Chemical Weapons Convention. Even countries with whom we agree on very little else agreed on this.

Now, some have tried to suggest that the debate that we’re having today is about this President’s redline, that this is about President Obama’s redline. Let me make it as clear as I can to all of you: That is just not true. This is about the world’s redline, it’s about humanity’s redline, a line that anyone with a conscience should draw and a line that was drawn nearly a hundred years ago in 1925 when the Chemical Weapons Convention was agreed on.

This debate, I might add to you, is also about Congress’s redline. You agreed to the Chemical Weapons Convention. Not all of you were here to vote for it, but the Congress agreed to that. The Congress passed the Syria Accountability Act, which Congressman Engel has referred to and authored. And that act says clearly, and I quote, Syria’s chemical weapons “threaten the security of the Middle East and the national security interests of the United States.” I think repeatedly members of Congress have spoken out about grave consequences if Assad in particular were to use chemical weapons. And both Speaker Boehner and Leader Pelosi have stated in recent days that the actions of the Assad regime are unacceptable, and that the United States has a responsibility to respond.

So as we debate, the world is watching and the world is wondering – not whether Assad’s regime actually did this. I think that fact is now beyond question. The world is wondering whether the United States of America is going to consent, through silence, to stand aside while this kind of brutality is allowed to happen without consequence.

In the nearly 100 years since this global commitment against chemical weapons was made, only two tyrants have dared to cross the world’s brightest line. Bashar al-Assad has now become the third. And history, I think everyone here knows, holds nothing but infamy for those criminals – and history also reserves little sympathy for their enablers. And that is the gravity of this moment. That is really what is at stake in the decision that the Congress faces.

Syria – bottom line – is important to America and our security for many reasons. First, you can’t overlook the danger that these weapons, as you said in the Syria Accountability Act, pose to the Middle East, to our allies, to our friends. You can’t overlook the threat that they face even to the United States ultimately if they fall into the wrong hands or if they are used with impunity. Since President Obama’s policy is that Assad must go, it is not insignificant that to deprive or degrade Assad’s chemical weapons deprives him of a lethal weapon in the ongoing civil war.

In addition, we have important strategic national security interests – not just in preventing the proliferation of chemical weapons – but to avoid the creation of a safe haven or a base of operations for extremists – al-Nusrah, others – to use these chemical weapons either against us or against our friends.

Forcing Assad to change his calculation about his ability to act with impunity can contribute to his realization that he cannot gas or shoot his way out of his predicament.

Syria is also important because quite simply – and I can’t say this strongly enough to all of you – many of you are parents and you know how lessons are learned by children. Many of you at school may have confronted at one point or a time a bully on the block or in the building. I think quite simply, common sense and human experience and reality tell us that the risk of not acting is greater than the risk of acting. If we don’t take a stand here today, I guarantee you we are more likely to face far greater risks to our security and a far greater likelihood of conflict that demands our action in the future. Why? Because we – as confidently as we know what happened in Damascus on August 21st, we know that Assad will read our silence, our unwillingness to act, as a signal that he can use his weapons with impunity. After all has been said and done, if we don’t now, knowing that he’s already done this at least 11 times that our intelligence community can prove, and here in this grotesque larger event, larger than anything that’s happened before, if we back down, if the world backs down, we have sent an unmistakable message of permissiveness.

Iran, I guarantee you, is hoping we look the other way. And surely they will interpret America’s unwillingness to act against weapons of mass destruction as an unwillingness to act against weapons of mass destruction. And we will fight for the credibility to make a deterrent against a nuclear weapon as meaningful as it should be without that fight. North Korea is hoping for ambivalence from the Congress. They’re all listening for our silence.

So the authorization that President Obama seeks is distinctly and clearly in our national interest, in our national security interest. We need to send to Syria and to the world – to dictators and terrorists, to allies and civilians alike – the unmistakable message that when we say “never again,” we actually don’t mean “sometimes,” we don’t mean “somewhere.” We mean never again.

So this is a vote for accountability. The norms and laws of the civilized world, that’s what this vote is for. And if we don’t answer Assad today, we will erode the standard that has protected our troops for a century – our troops. Our troops in war have been protected by the existence of this prohibition. Through World War II, through Korea, through Vietnam, through both Iraq wars, the fact is we have not seen chemical weapons in the battlefield but for the two occasions I mentioned previously. Our troops are protected. This is a standard that we need to enforce to stand up for America’s interests.

And I will say to you unequivocally that our allies and our partners are counting on us. The people of Israel, Jordan, and Turkey each look next door, and they see chemical weapons being used. They are one stiff breeze away from the potential of those weapons harming them. They anxiously await our assurance that our word is true. And they await the assurance that if the children lined up in those un-bloodied burial shrouds in Damascus were their own children, as they might be if this got out of hand – they want to know that we would keep the world’s promise.

As Justice Jackson said in the opening argument at Nuremberg, “The ultimate step in avoiding periodic wars, which are inevitable in a system of international lawlessness, is to make statesmen responsible to the law.” If the world’s worst despots see they can flout with impunity prohibitions against the world’s worst weapons, then those prohibitions are rendered just pieces of paper. That is what we mean by accountability. And that is – I say to all of you respectfully, that is why we cannot be silent.

Let me be very, very clear. When I walked into this room, a person of conscience stood up behind me, as is the ability of people in our country, and that person said, “Please don’t take us to war, don’t take us to another war.” I think the three of us sitting here understand that plea as well as any people in this country. Let me be clear. We are not asking America to go to war. And I say that sitting next to two individuals who well know what war is, and there are others here today who know what war is. They know the difference between going to war and what the President is requesting now. We all agree there will be no American boots on the ground. The President has made crystal clear we have no intention of assuming responsibility for Assad’s civil war. That is not in the cards. That is not what is here. The President is asking only for the power to make certain that the United States of America means what we say. He is asking for authorization, targeted and limited, to deter and degrade Bashar al-Assad’s capacity to use chemical weapons.

Now I will make it clear, for those who feel that more ought to be done or that in keeping with the policy that Assad must go, clearly the degradation of his capacity to use those weapons has an impact on the lethality of the weapons available to him. And it will have an impact on the battlefield. Just today before coming in here, I read an email to me about a general, the minister of defense – former minister or assistant minister, I forget which – who has just defected and is now in Turkey. And there are other defections that we are hearing about the potential of because of the potential that we might take action. So there will be downstream impacts, though that is not the principal purpose of what the President is asking you for.

Now some will undoubtedly and understandably ask about the unintended consequences of action. Will this drag you in inadvertently? And they fear that a retaliation could lead to a larger conflict. Let me say again, unequivocally, bluntly: If Assad is arrogant enough and foolish enough to retaliate to the consequences of his own criminal activity, the United States and our allies have ample ways to make him regret that decision without going to war. Even Assad’s supporters, Russia and Iran, say publicly that the use of chemical weapons is unacceptable. And guess what? Even Iran and Syria itself acknowledge that these weapons were used. They just pretend that the other guys, who don’t even have the capacity to do it, somehow did it.

So some will question the extent of our responsibility to act here. To them I say, when someone kills hundreds of children with a weapon the world has banned, we all are responsible. That’s true because of treaties like the Geneva Convention and the Chemical Weapons Convention, but is also true because we share a common humanity and a common sense of decency.

This is not the time for armchair isolationism. This is not the time to be spectators to slaughter. This is not the time to give permission to a dictator who has already used these weapons the unfettered ability to continue to use them because we stepped back. Neither our country nor our conscience can afford the cost of silence or inaction.

So we have spoken up. The President of the United States has made his decision. The President has decided we need to do this. But in keeping with our Constitution and the full measure of the hopes and articulated aspirations of our Founding Fathers, the President is coming to the Congress of the United States, a decision that the American people agree with, and asking the Congress to stand with him and with this Administration to stand up for our security, to protect our values, to lead the world with conviction that is clear. That is why we’re here, and we look forward to having a rigorous discussion with you in furtherance of that mission.

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PRN: 2013/1073