News / Middle East

Obama: Syria's Use of Chemical Weapons Is Threat to US Interests

President Barack Obama speaks to members of the media during his meeting with Baltic leaders in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Aug. 30, 2013.
President Barack Obama speaks to members of the media during his meeting with Baltic leaders in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Aug. 30, 2013.
U.S. President Barack Obama said Friday he has not made a final decision on attacking Syria, but made clear he thinks doing so would be in the interest of national security.

Syria has become a threat to the United States, he said, "by violating well established international norms against the use of chemical weapons, by further threatening friends and allies of ours in the region, like Israel, and Turkey and Jordan, and it increases the risk that chemical weapons will be used in the future, and fall into the hands of terrorists who might use them against us."

Speaking briefly at the White House, Obama said he has consulted with the U.S. military, members of Congress and U.S. allies, as well as the wider international community.

He also made clear his frustration with the United Nations' inability to agree on a course of action against Damascus.

"What we have seen so far at least is an incapacity at this point for the Security Council to move forward in the face of a clear violation of international norms," Obama said.

It was a point that Secretary of State John Kerry made earlier in the afternoon, and he blamed Russia, an ally of the Syrian government.

"And because of the guaranteed Russian obstructionism of any action through the U.N. Security Council, the U.N. cannot galvanize the world to act, as it should," Kerry said.

Russia has blocked previous attempts at the U.N. to impose sanctions on the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.  Russia, however, warns that Western intervention could be destablizing to the Middle East.

In a possible sign Washington may be preparing to act, a State Department official said Kerry called the foreign ministers of several countries Friday, including those in Britain, Egypt, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, as well as the secretary-general of the Arab League.

Legacy of Iraq, Afghanistan

The administration spent Friday laying out its arguments for a response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria, as it tries to build support at home and abroad for a strike on Syria.

International military deployments directed toward SyriaInternational military deployments directed toward Syria
International military deployments directed toward Syria
International military deployments directed toward Syria
It was clear, however, that the legacy of more than a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq weighs on Obama and his advisers.  The president said he is considering a "narrow, limited" strike.

He also said he is "not considering any open-ended commitment" in Syria.

And Secretary Kerry said any action "will bear no resemblance to Afghanistan, Iraq or even Libya.  It will not involve any boots on the ground.  It will not be open-ended."

Kerry acknowledged there are risks to acting against the government of President Assad, but said the risks of not acting are greater.  Not acting, he said, could embolden other countries to build and use chemical and nuclear weapons, such as Iran and North Korea.

Children killed

As Kerry spoke Friday afternoon, the White House released an unclassified report, saying the U.S. intelligence community has "high confidence" that Assad's government used chemical weapons on August 21 against civilians in several Damascus suburbs.

The report says 1,429 people died in the attack, at least 426 of them children.  It based the numbers on numerous sources, including witnesses, social media reports and Syrian and international medical personnel.

The report rejects the Syrian government's allegations that the attacks were the work of rebels.  It says rockets and artillery shells fired from government-held areas carried the toxic gases to neighborhoods held by rebel forces, and says the rebels do not have those types of heavy arms.

The U.S. also says its intelligence indicates that Syrian chemical weapons forces prepared the weapons before the attack.  In the days beforehand, the U.S. "collected streams of intelligence" linked to preparations for an attack.

Seeking support

With Obama's comments and Kerry's speech, along with the release of the intelligence summary on the chemical weapons attack, the administration pushed forward its effort to build support at home and abroad for a strike on the Damascus government.

Related video report by Zlatica Hoke

US Unveils Intelligence on Syrian Chemical Attacksi
August 31, 2013 4:16 AM
U.S. President Barack Obama says the world cannot stand by in the face of Syria's use of chemical weapons. The president spoke Friday after the U.S. government released an intelligence assessment which says Syrian government forces used a nerve agent in a recent attack on a Damascus suburb. Zlatica Hoke reports.

A spokesman for U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said the White House will brief Republican senators on the Syrian situation in a conference call Saturday, at the request of McConnell.

U.S. Government's Assessment

  • High confidence the Syrian government used a nerve agent in the Damascus suburbs on Aug. 21, 2013
  • 1,429 people were killed, including 426 children
  • Highly unlikely that the Syrian opposition carried out the chemical attack

U.S. Report on the Attack

  • Assad regime carried out a rocket and artillery attack on the Damascus suburbs early on Aug. 21
  • Thousands of reports on the attack appeared in social media
  • Nearby hospitals received 3,600 patients displaying symptoms consistent with nerve agent exposure
  • Hundreds of videos attributed to the attack show bodies with signs consistent with nerve agent exposure
  • Syrian opposition does not have the means to fabricate the videos and other information related to the attack
  • Intercepted communications involving senior Assad official who confirmed chemical weapons were used in the attack
Source: U.S. Government
Many U.S. voters and several members of Congress remain skeptical about the need for any U.S. involvement in Syria.  That sentiment is shared in other parts of the world.

Britain's lower house of parliament has rejected a motion for British participation in a military strike.

U.S. ally France, however, remains committed to a "firm and proportionate action" in response to that attack.  Kerry noted that others, such as members of the Arab League, Turkey and Australia, have called for a strong response.

Kerry acknowledged that after more than a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, Americans are tired of conflict.

"But fatigue does not absolve us of our responsibility.  Just longing for peace does not necessarily bring it about.  And history would judge us all extraordinarily harshly if we turned a blind eye to a dictator's wanton use of weapons of mass destruction against all warnings, against all common understanding of decency.  These things, we do know," he said.

Two former U.S. presidents have weighed in.  Former Republican president George W. Bush said Obama has a "tough choice to make".  

Former Democratic president Jimmy Carter said a punitive military response would be illegal under international law and "only harden existing positions and postpone a sorely needed political process" in Syria.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has urged world powers to hold off on possible military action until a U.N. chemical weapons inspection team completes its work in the country.

The inspectors left early Saturday and some are expected to meet with Ban in the next few days.  But, it could be weeks before their final report is issued.  Kerry noted that the U.N. inspectors' mission was to establish whether chemical weapons were used, but not to determine who used them.

  • In this citizen journalism image provided by Edlib News Network, ENN, Syrians search under rubble to rescue people from houses that were destroyed by a Syrian government warplane in Idlib province, August 30, 2013.
  • In this citizen journalism image provided by Edlib News Network, ENN, smoke rises after explosives were dropped by a Syrian government warplane in Idlib province, August 30, 2013.
  • In this image taken from video obtained from the Shaam News Network, U.N. investigators gather potential evidence in a Damascus suburb, August 28, 2013.
  • This citizen journalism image provided by the United media office of Arbeen shows Syrians moving a man who was allegedly exposed to chemical weapons to show him to U.N. investigators in a Damascus suburb, August 28, 2013.
  • This citizen journalism image provided by the United media office of Arbeen shows U.N. investigators in a suburb of Damascus, August 28, 2013.
  • Free Syrian Army fighters carry their weapons as they escort U.N. vehicles carrying chemical weapons experts at the site of an alleged chemical weapons attack in a Damascus suburb, August 28, 2013.
  • Free Syrian Army fighters deploy in Aleppo's town of Khanasir after seizing it, August 26, 2013.
  • Free Syrian Army fighters inspect munitions and a tank that belonged to forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad after they seized Khanasir, August 26, 2013.
  • A U.N. chemical weapons expert gathers evidence at site of an alleged poison gas attack in a southwestern Damascus suburb, August 26, 2013.
  • An image grab taken from a video posted by Syrian activists purportedly shows a U.N. inspector speaking to a man in a Damascus suburb, August 26, 2013.
  • U.N. chemical weapons experts visit a hospital where wounded people affected by a suspected gas attack are being treated, in a southwestern Damascus suburb, August 26, 2013.

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Comment Sorting
Comments page of 2
by: Yoshi from: Sapporo
September 01, 2013 10:03 PM
I do not think this usage of chemical weapon harms US intersts. Obama seems caught by paranoia to be attacked for American people with gas terrorism. Military forces do not work to stop conflicts as you learned from many many wars you have been engaged in since long before.

Why do not you think about other measures besides military forces to send your message to others? You should be more mature. Justice for someone is sometimes a signature of their immatuarity, self-satisfication and harm to others. I hope American people and congress would make thoughtful decision.Thank you.

by: TBellchambers from: London UK
September 01, 2013 7:33 AM
The burning question is why would the international community give any credence to so- called 'intelligence' supplied by one of the only states in the world that has refused to ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) of the OPCW, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons?

When 98% of the global population and of all major chemical manufacturers subscribe to the banning of these WMD, what does it say about the seven maverick states who refuse to condemn the illegal use of these weapons?
In Response

by: Dennis from: Singapore
September 04, 2013 1:02 PM
Sorry by "one of the only states in the world " do you mean Israel?

The US did sign and ratify the CWC in Jan 13, 1993 and Apr 29, 1997 respectively.

by: Markt
August 31, 2013 3:57 PM
oh, hell...he said the magic words...."a threat to U.S national security"...always the first words spoken before declaring war. Vietnam, a threat to our national security; 5 years and 58,000+ American dead...Iraq and Afghanistan, a threat to our national security, 12 years (and counting) and 6700+ (and counting) American dead.
Okay, the region is very unstable and very violent. Sure, lets make it even more unstable and violent by adding U.S. military strikes...give those Middle Eastern people ANOTHER reason to hate us, as if they don't hate us enough already.
Every President wants to be remembered for something, and war is always a thing that is remembered. Another legacy born of bloodshed and destruction. When will this end....?

by: Fire from: U.S.A.
August 31, 2013 2:46 PM
Show me the purpose why America should intervene in another countries civil war. All this will cause America problems like other countries are telling America, so back off. Please don't blame the people it's this administration without the backing of it's citizen.

by: Kp from: TX
August 31, 2013 2:00 PM
Without more information from the Gov., how am I to make an informed decision as to whether Assad truly used these chem. weapons? To clarify: I do not question whether they were used, but WHO used them.

For example, the Muslim Brotherhood rioters in Egypt staging photos and videos of rioting like it's a scene in a play. These people are not dumb, they are very aware of their global image. I take these things into consideration, and more such as the US and other countries histories of staging events to sway public opinion into supporting military action -- I see these things and I think "I need a little more proof."

I truly hope that us citizens learn from past mistakes and stand strong with our request for being certain before we act on something so important. Don't be swayed by hollow words.

by: van from: vietnam
August 31, 2013 11:28 AM
finally , the US is doing the right thing that no country to dare. To stand up to fight against brutality and cruelty of Assad. Tks a lot to America.
In Response

by: kp from: tx
August 31, 2013 1:51 PM
Who is going to stand up against the brutality of the rebels?

by: Michael from: USA
August 31, 2013 9:19 AM
The U.S. President has the power to send out the military, which would place Syria, according to generic fitting attitude theory, in a more or less dangerous threat-value to the world. Whats wrong with that?

by: ali baba from: new york
August 31, 2013 5:50 AM
Syria is not a threat to Us. it is very small country and it has no resources to develop a sophisticate chemical weapons. Us should not do the same mistake of Iraq of weapons of mass destruction and it was wrong. the British say no to get involved in war. this involvement will serve radical Muslim which they are in war against Bashar El Assad.. this attack will help the radical Islam to convert Syria into middle east Afghanistan Muslim brotherhood agenda should not promoted .the president has to seek approval from congress before us attack syria

by: Dr. Malek Towghi from: Michigan, USA
August 31, 2013 2:08 AM
Mr. President, Please explain how Syria's use of chemical weapons against its own Sunni Arab citizens is a threat to US interests?

It would have been close to the truth had you said: "The US inaction concerning Syria is a threat to the Military Industrial Complex's interests."

Mr. President, Your advisers and consultants should have told you that what is going on in Syria is a typical Shiah-Sunni civil war that has been raging in the Muslim world since 656 CE when the Muslim rebels led by the son of the first caliph, Abu Bakr, hacked to death the third caliph, Uthman / Usman.

The US or rest of the civilized world should never be a party in this ... Shia-Sunni civil war. It is an Arab-Muslim problem and should be dealt with accordingly.

by: No Propaganda from: USA
August 30, 2013 11:02 PM
Secretary of State John Kerry opened his speech Friday by describing the horrors victims of the chemical weapon attack suffered, including twitching, spasms and difficulty breathing.
Attempting to drive the point home, Kerry referenced a photograph used by the BBC illustrating a child jumping over hundreds of dead bodies covered in white shrouds. The photo was meant to depict victims who allegedly succumbed to the effects of chemical weapons via Assad’s regime.
However, it was later exposed the photograph used had been taken in 2003 in Iraq!! It was not related to Syrian deaths whatsoever and was later retracted.
The Secretary of State announced the US will continue “negotiations” with Congress and the American people.
The decision came after UK Parliament voted no to military action against Syria Thursday evening, refusing to accompany the US in a missile strike against the Middle Eastern nation.
Germany also voiced their opposition to Syria military intervention saying they have “not considered it” and “will not be considering it.”
France, however, released statements saying they intend to act alongside the US in an attempt to “punish” Syria for the alleged chemical weapons attack.
Despite numerous allies’ refusal to get involved, Kerry argued “Many friends stand ready to respond.”
Kerry alleged that not just one, but several chemical weapon attacks have occurred. The attack last week in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta killed 1,429 Syrians, including 426 children. However, the “international aid group Doctors Without Borders reported 355 people were killed in the attack last week, not the wildly exaggerated figure cited by Kerry.”
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