Secretary of State John Kerry revealed Friday the highlights of an unclassified intelligence assessment into last weeks reported chemical weapons attack that killed more than 1,000 outside Damascus, saying it is clear to the United States that the Syrian government was responsible.
“We know that a senior regime official confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime,” Kerry said from the State Department, offering the bluntest rationale yet for military engagement in Syria in a blistering 19 minute statement. “We know this.”
According to Kerry, the United States also knows that at least 1,429 Syrians were killed in the attack, including at least 426 children. He said the U.S. has been able to confirm the source of the Syrian chemical weapons in last week’s attack, and that Syrian government weapons technicians were known to be preparing their use. Kerry said this assessment was “fact.”
“The intelligence community has high confidence,” Kerry said. “The question is no longer what we know, it’s what we collectively, we in the world, do about it.”
According to the intelligence assessment and senior administration officials, the Syrian regime was attempting to clear the Damascus suburb of opposition forces before deploying the chemical weapons. Human, signals, and geospatial intelligence showed three days of preparations before the chemical weapons attack, and Syrian forces were told to take precautions before the attack. After the incident, U.S. intelligence intercepts picked up a senior Syrian official with knowledge of the attack expressing concern that UN officials would discover evidence of the attack, which was followed by a conventional artillery attack designed to cover up the attack.
That order to stop the attack and launch the artillery provided “additional confidence that this was a commanded operation,” according to one official.
Kerry did not preview any specific response, but said forcefully that there must be some punishment for Syrian President Bashar Assad.
“This crime against conscience, this crime against humanity. . . this matters to us, and it matters to who we are, and to leadership and credibility in the world. It matters here if nothing is done,” Kerry said. “This is about Hizbollah, North Korea and every other terrorist group. Will they remember that the world stood aside and created impunity?”
He promised that whatever military response the President orders, a prospect that appears increasingly likely even with limited international support, would not resemble other recent military adventures in Iraq, Afghanistan or Libya.
But the specter of the 2003 Iraq war, and the false intelligence upon which it was based, still provided context for Kerry’s statement. “Our intelligence community has carefully reviewed and rereviewed information regarding this attack,” he said. “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.”
An NBC News survey released Friday found that a majority of Americans oppose any military action in response to the use of chemical weapons. Additionally, nearly 80 percent of Americans want Obama to receive congressional approval before ordering strikes.
The full declassified U.S. intelligence assessment is here, and a U.S. intelligence map of the affected areas: