The Obama Administration Makes Its Case for Strikes Against Syria

I think that Secretary of State John Kerry’s presentation yesterday has advanced the Obama Administration’s case for an attack on Syria:

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. We will not repeat that moment. Accordingly, we have taken unprecedented steps to declassify and make facts available to people who can judge for themselves. But still, in order to protect sources and methods, some of what we know will only be released to members of Congress, the representatives of the American people. That means that some things we do know we can’t talk about publicly.

So what do we really know that we can talk about? Well, we know that the Assad regime has the largest chemical weapons program in the entire Middle East. We know that the regime has used those weapons multiple times this year and has used them on a smaller scale, but still it has used them against its own people, including not very far from where last Wednesday’s attack happened. 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.

We know that for three days before the attack the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons personnel were on the ground in the area making preparations. And we know that the Syrian regime elements were told to prepare for the attack by putting on gas masks and taking precautions associated with chemical weapons. We know that these were specific instructions. We know where the rockets were launched from and at what time. We know where they landed and when. We know rockets came only from regime-controlled areas and went only to opposition-controlled or contested neighborhoods.

and I’m glad the administration is making its case. Sec. Kerry produced no actual evidence but I guess that is only to be expected. What he produced was the administration’s analysis of the evidence. And it’s clear that the specter of Iraq and Colin Powell’s presentation to the UN hung over Sec. Kerry’s presentation. Writing at The New Yorker John Cassidy remarks:

Inevitably, there will be comparisons with Colin Powell’s infamous 2003 presentation to the United Nations about Saddam Hussein’s chemical-weapons program, which turned out to be largely bogus. Until Kerry’s claims are subjected to further inspection, it is probably wise to avoid reaching any definitive conclusions. But Kerry himself obliquely referred to the Powell fiasco, saying that the intelligence community had “reviewed and re-reviewed” the evidence about the attack, adding, “And I will tell you, it has done so more than mindful of the Iraq experience. We will not repeat that moment.”

There’s more than one way of viewing the Bush Administration’s claims about Iraq. One way is that they just lied. The other is that they presented what they believed to be the truth as they saw it in a way that bolstered their case for the course of action they believed to be the correct one, zealous advocacy. That, of course, is precisely what Sec. Kerry did yesterday.

Not everyone agrees with the Obama Administration’s interpretation of what happened in Syria. Vladimir Putin has, of course, rejected the administration’s claims as fabrications:

Russian President Vladimir Putin has challenged the US to present to the UN evidence that Syria attacked rebels with chemical weapons near Damascus.

Mr Putin said it would be “utter nonsense” for Syria’s government to provoke opponents with such attacks.

US President Barack Obama says he is considering military action against Syria after intelligence reports that 1,429 people were killed on 21 August.

UN weapons inspectors have left Syria after gathering evidence for four days.

They crossed into neighbouring Lebanon. They are due to go to the headquarters of the Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons in the Netherlands.

The US says hundreds of children were among those killed in the suspected chemical weapons attacks, which the US says was carried out by the Syrian government.

Syria said the US claim was “full of lies”, blaming rebels for the attacks.

A recent poll has found that nearly two-thirds of the French oppose military action against Syria and there are somewhat mixed messages coming from the French government on what should be done next. On the one hand:

President Hollande of France said that the vote by the UK Parliament would not affect France’s will to act.

He supported “firm” punitive action over an attack which had caused “irreparable” harm to the Syrian people. When asked if France could act against Syria without Britain he said: “Yes. Each country is sovereign to participate or not.”

but on the other:

Both Paris and Berlin put store by waiting for the UN to deliver its report on what happened even though the inspectors will not attempt to apportion blame. That report will not be ready until Sunday.

The French President says “everything must be done to reach a political solution” and has been urging the Syrian opposition to become a credible force.

What the French – and I think the Germans – favour is not just to punish Damascus for its alleged use of chemical weapons but to try to muscle it towards agreeing to attend talks in Geneva.

That is the goal for the Europeans – to get Russian President Vladimir Putin to push Syria’s Bashar al-Assad towards talks, but that will only happen if Mr Assad feels vulnerable.

I find myself largely in agreement with local Congresswoman (and wounded Iraq War veteran) Tammy Duckworth:

U.S. congresswoman and Iraq War veteran Tammy Duckworth said Thursday that she did not favor American military intervention in Syria and urged Middle East nations to find a resolution to the crisis.
U.S. congresswoman and Iraq War veteran Tammy Duckworth said Thursday that she did not favor American military intervention in Syria and urged Middle East nations to find a resolution to the crisis.


Duckworth said Mideast countries should take the lead in stopping Syria’s humanitarian crisis. “The nations in the Middle East have a responsibility to do something as well. This is their backyard,” she said.

Leadership is an appropriate role for the United States. Designated flak-catcher is not.

When we attacked Libya we were equipped with a UN resolution, allies who were capable of lifting at least some of the weight, and, importantly, allies from the Arab League. If we attack Syria, we may do so with none of that.

The next day or so will be critical. We’ll have a better idea of whether the Obama Administration is succeeding in convincing the American people. We’ll have a better sense of where Congress stands. The UN inspectors are expected to deliver their report.

4 comments… add one
  • Red Barchetta Link

    I generally stay out of the foreign policy stuff, but a couple observations and a question.

    I found paragraph #2 from Kerry above to be just a series of circumstantial evidence citations. But the rockets (and pictures, I suspect) may be as close to a smoking gun as you are going to get, although I think the administration would be well served to not get too cute with evidence if they want to generate support.

    I agree with Duckworth about the neighbors pitching in. But that will be when pigs fly.

    Was it a crucial error to draw “red lines,” for now a totally different dynamic from humanitarian or “no WMD” has taken hold: US credibility?

  • There’s an important question and its one I have no answer for that I’m confident about: would we be talking about attacking Syria if the president hadn’t made his “red line” comment?

    If the answer is “yes”, there’s a reasonable pretext for the attack. If the answer is “no”, then we really are talking about attacking another country to save presidential face, IMO a really lousy reason to go to war.

  • Worth mentioning: the Obama Administration has yet to present evidence or even make the claim that Assad ordered the attack or even knew about it before it had actually taken place.

  • steve Link

    I think his selection of Powers indicates that we would be in the same place even w/o the red line comment. YMMV. What I am not sure about is how much pressure we are getting from Israel. They have been very anti-Assad, no surprise given their feelings about Iran. I have read at least a couple of their editorials strongly advocating for an attack. Otherwise, I have not seen a lot. If the Israelis are pushing for this, I think the neocons, the theocons (Tea PArty IOW) and liberal interventionists will provide a majority vote in Congress if Obama decides to take it there.

    I now think that based upon what we know, the case that they actually used them sounds pretty good (sounds like they have a lot of intercepted communications), that the case for an attack is probably the morally correct one. However, w/o support from the international community it is illegal. Tough call, but I think Duckworth is correct. If no one else in the ME is willing to act on this, we should just abandon the CWC and forget it.


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