Kerry slams Syria's Assad for 'moral obscenity'

Secretary of State John Kerry delivers a statement about the use of chemical weapons in Syria at the Department of State, Monday, Aug. 26.

Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement that "there must be accountability" for using the world's most heinous weapons against vulnerable people.

Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday in a televised statement that the Obama administration has additional evidence of Syrian chemical weapons. Kerry also accused Syrian President Bashar Assad of destroying evidence.

Calling Syria's use of chemical weapons "undeniable," Kerry described what is happening on the ground there as "real" and "compelling." He added that President Barack Obama will "be making an informed decision about how to respond to this indiscriminate use of chemical weapons."

Related: US would only act on Syria with international community

"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. Nothing today is more serious, and nothing is receiving more serious scrutiny," Kerry said.

He called the slaughter of Syrian civilians by Assad's regime "a moral obscenity" that "should shock the conscience of the world."

"This is about the large-scale indiscriminate use of weapons that the civilized world long ago decided must never be used at all, a conviction shared even by countries that agree on little else," Kerry said, adding that he couldn't get images from the horrific attack out of his head.

"As a father, I can’t get the image out of my head of a man who held up his dead child, wailing while chaos swirled around him, the images of entire families dead in their beds without a drop of blood or even a visible wound, bodies contorting in spasms, human suffering that we can never ignore or forget," he said. "Anyone who could 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 that firsthand accounts from humanitarian organizations on the ground, like Doctors Without Borders and the Syria Human Rights Commission, indicate that chemical weapons were used in Syria.

A survivor from what activists say is a gas attack rests inside a mosque in the Duma neighbourhood of Damascus August 21, 2013.Reuters: Bassam Khabieh

A survivor from what activists say is a gas attack rests inside a mosque in the Duma neighborhood of Damascus August 21, 2013.

In an interview published Tuesday on the website of the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency, Assad accused the U.S. and other countries of "disdain and blatant disrespect of their own public opinion; there isn't a body in the world, let alone a superpower, that makes an accusation and then goes about collecting evidence to prove its point."

Assad warned that if the U.S. attacks Syria, it will face "what it has been confronted with in every war since Vietnam: failure."

Two administration officials said the U.S. was expected to make public a more formal determination of chemical weapons use on Tuesday, with an announcement of Obama's response likely to follow quickly. The officials insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the internal deliberations.

The British government said Tuesday its military is drawing up contingency plans for a possible military attack on Syria.

Kerry's comments came as U.S. and other world leaders contemplate armed intervention into Syria's nearly two-year civil war that only appears to be growing bloodier, leaving more than 100,000 Syrians dead so far. Kerry added that the Syrian regime had failed to cooperate with the U.N. investigation, "using it only to stall and to stymie the important effort to bring to light what happened in Damascus in the dead of night."

"And as Ban Ki- moon said last week, the U.N. investigation will not determine who used these chemical weapons, only whether such weapons were used, a judgment that is already clear to the world," Kerry said.

Despite being fired upon, UN chemical weapons inspectors managed to get evidence from Syrian gas attack victims and return to safety.

Here's how the situation reached this point. 

SYRIAN HISTORY

  • Bashar Assad has been president of Syria since 2000. His father, Hafez Assad, ruled for 30 years before that.
  • While Bashar entered office with promises of reforming Syria, he openly stated that he had no plans to fully democratize the country's elections and transfer power away from its ruling Baath party.
  • Assad has consistently arrested political activists.
  • He has also clashed with Israel many times over the Golan Heights, which Israel seized in 1967. As a result, Syria has supported Lebanese and Palestinian militant groups who oppose Israel. Assad is also closely allied with Iran.
  • Assad was re-elected in 2007, winning almost 98 percent of the vote. Many believed the election was a sham as opponents feared speaking out against Assad would lead to their arrest.

Syrian First Lady Asma al-Assad smiles as her husband, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, casts his ballot in Damascus, 27 May 2007.Getty Images: Louai Beshara

Syrian First Lady Asma al-Assad smiles as her husband, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, casts his ballot in Damascus, 27 May 2007.

ARAB SPRING

  • As waves of protests spread across the Middle East against authoritarian rulers in 2011, Syrians began to take to the streets to organize against Assad's often brutal use of power.
  • Assad promised a series of policy reforms but continued to use force against the protesters, who he said were working to destabilize the country.
  • Protesters began forming into armed resistance groups and defecting from the national military. The rebel groups, which Assad refers to as "terrorists," soon started attacking government forces.

Related: Q&A: What the US is getting itself into in Syria

  • The subsequent fighting has now raged on for almost two years. Close to 100,000 people have been killed in the fighting, according to the UN. More than 250,000 Syrians have been displaced.

REBEL GROUPS

  • While the Free Syrian Army is the most powerful and internationally respected militia in Syria, its effectiveness and long-term viability have been imperiled recently by an infiltration of Islamist groups, especially the Nusra Front. 

Related: Rebels vs rebels is undermining revolt in Syria

  • While the FSA is more secular-minded and aims to establish democracy in Syria, other increasingly powerful rebel units want to adopt religious Sharia law and set up an Islamist state. According to the American officials, there are 1,200 opposition groups operating in Syria.
  • Assad is backed by Russia, which has close ties with the country and supplies it with weapons. Al-Qaida also fights against FSA forces, and Assad's soldiers are supported by Hezbollah troops, which in turn are backed by Iran. In July, one of the FSA's top commanders was killed at a checkpoint by a group associated with al-Qaida in Syria.

INTERVENTION AND 'RED LINE'

  • While it's unlikely that Obama, who inherited costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, would send troops into Syria, it's becoming increasingly possible that the U.S. could form a coalition with countries like France, Great Britain and Turkey and attack Syria from the air and sea.
  • Obama has repeatedly said that any chemical attack by Assad's troops would be a "red line" for the U.S., meaning the country would be compelled to respond militarily and protect innocent Syrians. Obama reportedly spoke with British and French leaders over the weekend to gauge their commitment to an allied aerial assault against Syria.
  • The U.S. has maintained limited engagement in Syria, imposing sanctions against the country and providing non-lethal and humanitarian aid to rebels and civilians. It has relied on its allies in the region, like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, two predominantly Sunni countries, to provide aid to opposition fighters. While Assad is a Shiite, Syria is nearly three-quarters Sunni.
  • A top concern of the U.S. Congress is that American arms could eventually wind up in Islamists' hands, who would use them to attack the U.S. and Europe.
  • The U.S. has said there are ways of acting without the UN Security Council, which includes Russia, Syria's largest ally, which would surely block any move against the country.

US RESPONSE

  • According to Fox News, four U.S. Navy destroyers have been positioned in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, where they might be able to hit Assad's forces with Tomahawk cruise missiles.
  • Various members of Congress have said the reported chemical attack is grounds for an allied assault on Assad's forces
  • "I hope the president, as soon as we get back to Washington, will ask for authorization from Congress to do something in a very surgical and proportional way,” Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Fox News. 

 

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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