John Kerry's early words

2013-08-27 10:54
Secretary of State John Kerry at the UN Security Council New York.

Secretary of State John Kerry at the UN Security Council New York. (AFP)

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On Monday US Secretary of State John Kerry delivered remarks about the escalating (hard to imagine it can escalate at this stage, but it may just have) situation in Syria, which is evolving from civil war to worse civil war.
Kerry's remarks centred around recent reports showing chemical weapons may have been used, which the US government made clear last year was a "red line". US President Barack Obama said during a White House briefing in August 2012: "We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilised. That would change my calculus… We have put together a range of contingency plans."
That "calculus" of which the president spoke has been mightily tested in the intervening months. The latest reports of chemical weapons use culminated in footage spread across mainstream international media. And the footage looks absolutely horrific.

Couching criticisms

UN investigators, in spite of difficulties in entering the site of the attack, are there now. And although they were shot at by snipers earlier on Monday, are scheduled to return to the area.

While this investigation is under way, most international leaders are couching their criticisms in careful language, such as UN Secretary general Ban Ki-moon who said, "if proven, any use of chemical weapons by anyone under any circumstances is a serious violation of international law and an outrageous crime.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman said, "The suspected large-scale use of poison gas breaks a taboo even in this Syrian conflict that has been so full of cruelty."
France and Britain, however, have accused the Syrian government of using chemical weapons since early June.
Kerry's speech contained the strongest language to come out of the US thus far, and seemed primed for a conclusion lashing the Syrian government. Although Kerry said "we will provide … information in the days ahead," there is still no proof of precisely what happened - and again, UN inspectors are there at the moment - which is why it was surprising to hear him say, "Anyone who can claim that an attack of this staggering scale could be contrived or fabricated needs to check their conscience and their own moral compass."
He added [emphasis mine]: "What is before us today is real, and it is compelling. So I also want to underscore that while investigators are gathering additional evidence on the ground, our understanding of what has already happened in Syria is grounded in facts informed by conscience and guided by common sense. The reported number of victims, the reported symptoms of those who were killed or injured, the firsthand accounts from humanitarian organisations on the ground like Doctors Without Borders and the Syria Human Rights Commission - these all strongly indicate that everything these images are already screaming at us is real, that chemical weapons were used in Syria."

The two highlighted phrases seem contradictory; one can't really say something is real, and then claim two sentences later that it is strongly indicated. And this exposes the weakness of the current argument put forward by Kerry: there is no proof of precisely what happened. It is plausible that the Syrian government did use chemical weapons against rebel forces, but there are other scenarios that are also possible, however improbable.

Difficult to investigate

There is no consensus about the degree of confidence anyone can have the attacks were real (a range of opinions can be found in international media. Some experts say chemical attacks are likely. Some claim the effects are from rudimentary devices unlike the sophisticated arsenal the Syrian government is known to have (ie what the rebels can manufacture). Some say it is likely these are chemical weapons.) Kerry can posture all he likes, but inconclusiveness remains, despite how much conscience and moral-compass checking he might like us to undertake.
The Syrian government has made it difficult for the UN to investigate the incident, only allowing them in five days after the suspected attack, but this in itself is not an admission of guilt. (Indeed Kerry said, "That is not the action of a regime eager to prove to the world that it had not used chemical weapons.

In fact, the regime's belated decision to allow access is too late, and it’s too late to be credible.") Decisions like becoming involved in another country’s conflict needs to be taken with certainty in mind. The deep shadow of the war in Iraq - where "evidence" to enter the country was found to be hogwash - has not yet receded in the mind of the American (or the world's) population.

'Must be accountability'
And in fact it is the American population that is likely going to stifle any sort of all-out war in Syria: a Reuters/IPSOS poll released on Saturday showed 60% of Americans think their country should not intervene, chemical weapons or not. This also means that any resolution Congress may take will be unlikely to result in active participation, which means Kerry and the Obama administration need to look at their options outside that.
What those options might be remain pure conjecture, but Kerry eerily ended off his remarks today saying, "President Obama believes there must be accountability… Nothing today is more serious and nothing is receiving more serious scrutiny."
While the UN investigators are there.  

Read more on:    un  |  john kerry  |  barack obama  |  ban ki-moon  |  syria  |  us  |  syria conflict

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