By Julian Pecquet and Justin Sink - 08/26/13 10:53 PM EDT
Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday laid out the rationale for a U.S. attack on Syria, vowing there would be “consequences” for what he deemed an “undeniable” chemical weapons attack by Syria's government.
"The president will be making an informed decision about how to respond to this indiscriminate use of chemical weapons," Kerry said.
“Nothing today is more serious, and nothing is receiving more serious scrutiny.”
Kerry said the president is “actively consulting” with Congress, which is responsible for declaring war, and with U.S. allies.
Separately, the White House indicated Obama would soon address the public about Syria.
"I think you can expect to hear him speak on it again as he evaluates the potential options and responses and makes a decision," White House press secretary Jay Carney said at his press briefing, which was delayed to begin after Kerry's remarks.
Carney said Obama was consulting with his national security team, as well as international allies, in developing the U.S. response.
He also said that the president was "repulsed" and "heartbroken" by videos and pictures of the aftermath of the attack in Syria that has surfaced on social media.
Kerry's comments left little doubt that there will be U.S.-led strikes on Syria. The questions now appear to be when they will begin, how long they will last and how heavy they will be.
He said the United States has “additional information” about the latest attack that is “being compiled and reviewed together with our partners.” He said it would be provided in the “days ahead.”
“Our understanding of what has already happened in Syria is grounded in facts, informed by conscience and guided by common sense,” Kerry said.
His comments were directed at not only the U.S. public but an international audience that includes allies of Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime, particularly Russia.
Kerry made the moral case for taking tough action on Syria to a U.S. public that polling shows is reluctant to get involved in any conflicts in the Middle East.
With Russia, Kerry's tough words seemed designed to shame opponents of military action.
He called the alleged use of chemical weapons a "moral obscenity" that “goes beyond” the crisis in Syria. He suggested the use of poison gas compels a strong response, even from those wary of interceding in a civil war that has been raging since March 2011.
“There is a reason why President Obama has made clear to the Assad regime that this international norm cannot be violated without consequences,” he said. “And there is a reason why, no matter what you believe about Syria, all peoples and all nations who believe in the cause of our common humanity must stand up to assure that there is accountability for the use of chemical weapons so that it never happens again.”
Kerry had particularly harsh words for those who have cast doubts on what happened last week in the suburbs of Damascus, where rebel forces say more than 1,000 people were killed with poison gas. Assad's regime has blamed the rebels, and Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday told British Prime Minister David Cameron that he “did not have evidence of whether a chemical weapons attack had taken place or who was responsible,” according to a read-out from Cameron's office.
“What we saw in Syria last week should shock the conscience of the world. It defies any code of morality,” Kerry said. “Despite the excuses and equivocations that some have manufactured, it is undeniable.”
“Anyone who could claim that an attack of this staggering scale could be contrived or fabricated needs to check their conscience and their own moral compass. What is before us today is real, and it is compelling.”
Obama should now "move quickly" to hold Assad accountable for crossing his "red line" on chemical weapons, Rep. Eliot Engel, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs panel, said after the speech. The New York Democrat was the first lawmaker to introduce legislation to arm the rebels, back in March.
“Secretary Kerry is right that the use of chemical weapons in Syria is undeniable and shocks the conscience of humanity, and that there must be consequences," Engel said. "I hope that the administration will now move quickly to act against the Assad regime and show the world that the use of such weapons will not be tolerated.”
Kerry said the responsibility for last week's attack was “a judgment that is already clear to the world.” He said he spoke with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem on Thursday, a day after the alleged attack, and told him to give United Nations inspectors on the ground “unrestricted and immediate access” to the site of the latest attack.
“Failure to permit that,” Kerry said, “would tell its own story. Instead, for five days, the Syrian regime refused to allow the U.N. investigators access to the site of the attack that would allegedly exonerate it. Instead, it attacked the area further, shelling it and systematically destroying evidence.
“That is not the behavior of a government that has nothing to hide,” Kerry said. “The regime's belated decision to allow access is too late to be credible.”
—This story was posted at 3:06 p.m. and updated at 6:53 p.m.