Syria crisis: America tells the world 'We have the evidence - now we HAVE to punish Assad'

President Obama says Syria’s actions represent a 'challenge to the world' as Secretary of State, John Kerry, claims certain knowledge of chemical attack in which at least 1,429 died

The United States was on a clear path to military intervention in Syria tonight, declaring in the most robust terms yet that it now has “high confidence” that the regime of President Bashar al-Assad ordered gas attacks on a suburb of Damascus last week and asserting the assault killed no fewer than 1,429 people.

Speaking from the White House, a sober President Barack Obama said Syria’s actions represented a “challenge to the world” and to American national security.  He added that he had not made a final decision and was considering only a “limited, narrow act”.  He emphasized: “We’re not considering any open ended commitment. We’re not considering any boots on the ground approach.” He added, however, that the US has an obligation “as a leader in the world” to hold countries accountable if they violate “international norms”.

At the State Department, the Secretary of State, John Kerry, argued in more passionate language that the Syrian regime had committed a “crime against humanity” that could not go unpunished. “History will judge us extraordinarily harshly if we turn a blind eye,” he said, adding that there were 426 children among the dead. “This is the indiscriminate, inconceivable horror of chemical weapons. This is what Assad did to his own people.”

Echoing the contents of a four-page intelligence assessment simultaneously made public, Mr Kerry ran through a catalogue of what he said are now known facts. He said the US had evidence that regime personnel were on the ground in the targeted area three days before, “making preparations”. He said the US knows where the rockets armed with chemical agents were launched from and at what time. He also said that “Syria regime elements were told to prepare for the attack by putting on gas masks and taking precautions associated with chemical weapons”. He added: “We know these were specific instructions.”

In his presentation, Mr Kerry also cited the Arab League, Turkey, Australia and “our oldest ally, the French” as among those in the world expressing support for punishment against the regime. He notably omitted all mention of Britain, where a previous promise by the Prime Minister, David Cameron, to join military action was effectively nullified by his defeat in Parliament on Thursday.

Adding that they have a direct intercept of a regime official acknowledging that chemical weapons had been used and expressing concern the world would find out, Mr Kerry said “the American intelligence community has high confidence” in its findings. “This is common sense, this is evidence. These are facts,” he said.

Tonight Syria issued a statement accusing Mr Kerry of a “desperate attempt” to justify a military strike. The Syrian Foreign Ministry added that claims the regime had used chemical weapons were “lies and baseless”.

Earlier, Chuck Hagel, the US Defence Secretary, similarly left little doubt that the mission would move forward with or without Britain. “I don’t know of any responsible government around the world... that has not spoken out in violent opposition to the use of chemical weapons on innocent people,” Mr Hagel said during an official visit to the Philippines.

There was little sign, however, that the White House would tolerate much more delay. The UN inspectors left Syria early this morning, as planned, which removes one obstacle to launching military strikes. On Tuesday Mr Obama leaves for Sweden and thereafter Russia for a G20 summit; he might prefer to be at home in the Oval Office to launch the operation. There was speculation tonight that military action could be launched within days.

Mr Cameron may yet be playing a part in the planning of the strikes even if the British military, as things stand now, may not participate. The White House confirmed that President Obama tonight placed phone calls to two foreign leaders to further discuss his intentions - President Hollande of France and the Prime Minister. In a statement, moreover, it seemed at pains to play down any perceived damage to the ties with Britain in the wake of Thursday night’s vote in Parliament. “As always, the United States values the special relationship with the United Kingdom, a close ally and friend.  The President and Prime Minister agreed to continue to consult closely on Syria and the broad range of security challenges that our two countries face together,” it said.

That France was giving credence to the notion of international backing for military action was ironic given Paris’s opposition to the Iraq war in 2003, which led Congress to ditch “French fries” from its menus in favour of “Freedom fries”. Since France has deeper ties with Syria, which it once ruled, than Iraq, the change is particularly dramatic.

“The chemical massacre of Damascus cannot and must not remain unpunished,” President Hollande said in an interview with Le Monde today. “I won’t talk of war, but of a sanction for a monstrous violation of the human person,” he said. “It will have a dissuasive value.” Mr Hollande said he might approve a mission even before a debate that is scheduled in the parliament for Wednesday. “If I have [already] committed France, the government will inform [politicians] of the means and objectives,” he said.

Mr Obama acknowledged America was “war weary”. A poll by NBC said half of Americans opposed military action against Syria, with only 42 per cent supporting it. Moreover four in five Americans said Mr Obama should seek the approval of Congress first.  Mr Kerry also noted public reluctance, but said: “Fatigue does not absolve us of our responsibility. Just longing for peace does not necessarily bring it about.”

Nor are Mr Obama’s predecessors of one voice. The former President George W Bush expressed sympathy with Mr Obama’s position. “The President has a tough choice to make, and if he decides to use our military, he’ll have the greatest military ever backing him up,” he told Fox News. Elsewhere, Jimmy Carter urged the White House to seek UN backing. “A punitive military response without a UN mandate or broad support from Nato and the Arab League would be illegal under international law and unlikely to alter the course of the war,” he said.

Reaction to a conference-call briefing on the contents of the Syrian intelligence dossier with leading members of Congress on Thursday night appeared mixed and apparently did little to quell calls for Mr Obama to consult with Congress before taking action. “There needs to be more consultation with all Members of Congress,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said in a statement. “And that the case needs to be made to the American people.”

Kerry fails to mention Britain in list of nations backing US

The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, needs more than one hand to count the number of times he has stood in that same spot in the ornate Treaty Room of the State Department where John Kerry made his Syria presentation. He might almost have had his own keys given the sanctity of the “special relationship”.

He can give them back now. How jarring it was to hear Kerry not just omit all reference to Britain today as he went down the list of countries and organisations that have voiced support for America’s stand on Syria but then to give special standing to “our oldest ally” the French. 

The dig appeared was especially acid if you know its historical context. Kerry was making reference to France coming to the side of America against Britain in the revolutionary war that began in 1776.

“America should feel confident and gratified that we are not alone in our condemnation and we are not alone in our will to do something about it and to act,” Mr Kerry declared. Gratified, however, is clearly not the first sentiment that Washington is feeling today when it comes to Britain - not its oldest ally.

Activists died filming attacks

Local activists whose videos of the chemical attack in a Damascus suburb this month prompted Western politicians to rethink their stance on the Syrian conflict paid the ultimate price for their efforts, dying after inhaling the gases, according to a new report.

Razan Zaitouneh of the Violations Documentation Center (VDC) in Syria told Foreign Policy magazine that a VDC team and media staff from a local coordination committee rushed to the suburb of Zamalka to document the attack soon after it was reported on 21 August. She said only one of those activists survived the attack.

“Chemical attacks, on the first day of the massacre, claimed the lives of many media activists in Zamalka coordination because they inhaled the chemical toxic gases,” the sole surviving activist, Murad Abu Bilal, told Ms Zaitouneh in a YouTube interview, according to Foreign Policy. “They went out to shoot and collect information about the chemical attack, but none of them came back.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Parts Advisor

£16500 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the leading Mercedes-Ben...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer

£27500 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Telemarketers / Sales - Home Based - OTE £23,500

£19500 - £23500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Experienced B2B Telemarketer wa...

Recruitment Genius: Showroom Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This global company are looking for two Showro...

Day In a Page

Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor