State Dept: Kerry’s Syria Statement Was ‘Rhetorical and Hypothetical’


State Department spokesperson Marie Harf said Secretary of State John Kerry’s statement calling for the Assad regime to hand over its chemical weapons was a "rhetorical statement about a scenario that we think is highly unlikely" during Monday’s State Department briefing:

Q: Can you — you know, the secretary's comments this morning in London, whether or not they were rhetorical or serious, they seem to have — (chuckles) — they seem to have been embraced and endorsed by a growing number of people.

And I've just heard the White House deputy national adviser say that you would have to take a hard look at the Russian proposal, which is a bit odd since it wasn't a Russian proposal; it was actually a proposal by Secretary Kerry. Was this rhetorical, or was it serious?

MS. HARF: What Secretary Kerry said, as Jen said, I believe from the road, was that he was speaking theoretically about a situation we thought had very low probability of happening. What Ben, I believe, said and what we're saying is that we will have to take a hard look at the Russian statement, which is what's happened since then and — so we understand exactly what the Russians are proposing here. I think that's what we've been clear about.

Clearly, we have some serious skepticism. Everything that Assad has done over the past two years and before has been to refuse to put his chemical weapons under international control. He hasn't declared them. We've repeatedly called on him to do so. And he's ignored prohibitions against them. So I think it's important to keep in mind the context under which this Russian statement and the Syrian statement is happening, that this is only happening in the context of a threat of U.S. military action.

So again, we'll take a step back, and we'll look at the Russian statement. We'll see what details lie behind it. But at this point, of course, we have serious skepticism because of everything Assad has done in the course of the last several years on chemical weapons.

Q: What does it mean, we'll take a step back?

MS. HARF: We'll take a hard look at it, absolutely.

Q: Well, taking a step back seems to imply that you might not continue with making your case for —

MS. HARF: Absolutely not. In fact, the opposite, Matt. We think this is why it's even more important that Congress votes to authorize the president to use military action against Syrian regime targets because we can be clear that if we don't give authorization to do so and if we don't respond, then Assad will see that as a green light to continue using these chemical weapons.

Q: OK.

MS. HARF: So in fact, we would say the opposite. That's why it's even more important for Congress to move ahead and authorize this use of military force.

Q: The secretary's comment came in response to this question: Is there anything at this point that his — Assad's — government could do or offer that would stop an attack? And the secretary replied: Sure. He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week. Turn it over — all of it — without delay and allow a full and total accounting for that. But he isn't about it do it and it can't be done, obviously.

A couple things. It appears now that the Syrians — you know, that the Syrians say that they are willing to do this. But what does he mean it can't be done, obviously? Why is it obvious that this can't be done?

MS. HARF: Well, I think what the — again, you saw Jen's comment about this, that he was making a rhetorical statement about a scenario that we find highly unlikely. Now, what we've said since then on the Russian statement is that everything Assad has done over the past two years has been exactly the opposite of declaring, of being open, of moving towards getting rid of chemical weapons. So we have to — so the onus is on them.

But what we've been clear about is we can't have this be another stalling tactic. So I'm not going to further parse the secretary's words. I think we've made very clear that because of all of the deception of the Assad regime about their use of chemical weapons and other issues, quite frankly, gives us strong skepticism that this could happen. We'll take a look what the Russians have said. We'll take a look at any ideas people would put on the table.

Q: I'm interested why you keep putting this on the Russians because Lavrov did not make this statement until after he found out about what the secretary had said.

MS. HARF: But the secretary was not making a proposal. The secretary was making —

Q: How is that — go ahead.

MS. HARF: Thank you. The secretary was making a rhetorical statement. And you read the whole quote, which I actually appreciate you doing. Look, he's not about to do this. That was — that's what — that's what the —

Q: But how do you know that?

MS. HARF: Because everything — look, if the Assad regime came forward and said, we will give up all of our chemical weapons, put them under international control, clearly, that would be a good thing. We've asked them to do that for years. But everything the Assad regime has done over the past two years and before is in direct opposition to that.

Q: But if the threat of U.S. military action pushes him to do that, are you willing to consider not going ahead with — or is — I don't know if the president — is this something that you would — you would see as a — that would lower the temperature, that would take things down a notch so that you potentially wouldn't have to carry out a military strike?

MS. HARF: We believe that the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons must be responded to. We believe that the only way to deter and degrade Assad from doing this again is to have a credible military threat on the table, which is why Congress needs to move quickly to authorize this use of force. So we are not — we are actually moving forward with this because it's even more important that in this scenario we get authorization to do just that.

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