Senior Obama administration officials urged Congress on Tuesday to authorize limited military strikes against Syria for its poison gas attacks, asserting that a failure to act would encourage further atrocities.
“So this is a vote for accountability. Norms and laws that keep the civilized world civil mean nothing if they’re not enforced,” said Secretary of State John Kerry.
“We have no intention of assuming responsibility for Syria’s civil war,” he said.
President Barack Obama “is asking only for the power to make clear, to make certain that the United States means what we say, that the world, when we join together in a multilateral statement, mean what we say. He’s asking for authorization to degrade and deter Bashar al-Assad’s capacity to use chemical weapons,” he said.
Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey testified on the need for military action before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Kerry said limited military attacks were needed to send “the unmistakable message” to Syria regarding the Aug. 21 nerve gas attack near Damascus that “we don’t mean sometimes, never means never.”
“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,” Kerry said.
Hagel said the military options for Syria are designed to “hold the [Syrian leader Bashar al-]Assad regime accountable, degrade its ability to carry out these kinds of attacks, and deter the regime from further use of chemical weapons.”
“The Department of Defense has developed military options to achieve these objectives, and we have positioned U.S. assets throughout the region to successfully execute this mission,” Hagel said. “We believe we can achieve them with a military action that would be limited in duration and scope.”
Among the risks of a military strike, Hagel said the regime could conduct “even more devastating chemical weapons attacks.”
However, he said refusing to act would undermine the credibility of U.S. security commitments, including promises to block Iran from acquiring nuclear arms, Hagel said.
Dempsey, who unlike Kerry and Hagel did not offer an opening statement, told the panel that the goal of military action would be to degrade Syria’s chemical warfare capabilities.
The four-star general said any upcoming military strike would be focused on the threat of Syria’s chemical weapons. He said supporting the opposition with arms and assistance could come later.
The Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday that promised U.S. military support for the Free Syrian Army has been delayed.
However, Saudi Arabia and Turkey currently are providing arms to Islamist groups, including two rebel groups linked to al Qaeda, in addition to the Free Syrian Army, a group dominated by former Syrian army officers and troops.
Obama on Saturday announced he has decided to take military action against Syria but would first seek congressional approval.
At least five U.S. warships are deployed near Syria in the Eastern Mediterranean and are equipped with cruise missiles.
Defense officials have said a limited, one-day series of cruise missile strikes would be aimed to attack Syrian artillery, rockets, and missiles near Damascus, where the chemical attack took place.
U.S. intelligence agencies determined that nerve agent was sued, killing some 1,400 people, including more than 400 children.
Assad told the French newspaper Le Figaro this week that western military strikes would lead to a regional conflict in the Middle East, an area he called a “powder keg.”
France’s government released an intelligence report that confirmed that Syria’s government was behind the gas attack.
“The attack on Aug. 21 could only have been ordered and carried out by the regime,” the report stated. “We believe the Syrian opposition does not have the capacity to carry out an operation of such magnitude with chemical agents,” it said.
France’s military is prepared to join the United States in attacks on Syria in response to the gas attacks, although French government spokesmen have said the military would not act on its own and must join a coalition.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said on Monday that “statements from Washington threatening to use force against Syria are unacceptable.” He warned that U.S. action would violate international law, undermine the prospects for a resolution to the Syrian conflict, and provoke further confrontation, Interfax reported.
Also on Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said China has “serious concerns” about plans for military strikes. Hong said international military action must conform to the United Nations charter and basic rules of international relations.
Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.), ranking member of the committee, said he hoped the officials would “make a case as to why Syria is important to our national interests, why Syria matters to the region, why it’s important for us to carry out the stated strategy and how we’re going to continue to carry out that stated strategy.”
Dempsey said the military is closely watching Syria amid reports that the Syrian military is moving or hiding assets to protect them from a strike.
“We have significant intelligence capabilities and we continued to refine our targets,” Dempsey said.