Kerry Makes Case For U.S. Action In Syria

Obama administration officials are making their case for action in Syria, with several Cabinet officials appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Secretary of State John Kerry argues that the U.S. needs to hold Bashar Assad's government accountable for the use of chemical weapons.

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Obama administration officials are making their case for taking military action in Syria as retribution for what they claim was a chemical weapons attack near Damascus last month. President Obama says he's ready to conduct limited strikes against the Syrian regime, but he wants the backing of Congress first. So, today, the president met with leading lawmakers at the White House while his representatives went to Capitol Hill. NPR's Michele Kelemen has been following the hearing in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Appearing before the committee he once chaired, Secretary of State John Kerry argued that the U.S. can't be a, quote, "spectator to slaughter." A failure to act, he warns, will undermine international norms against chemical weapons.

SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: Now, some have tried to suggest that the debate we're having today is about President Obama's red line. I could not more forcefully state that is just plain and simply wrong. This debate is about the world's red line. It's about humanity's red line, and it's a red line that anyone with a conscience ought to draw.

KELEMEN: Kerry says the U.S. has evidence that proves beyond a reasonable doubt that Bashar al-Assad's regime carried out a chemical weapons attack last month near Damascus. He said first responders tested positive for sarin, and the U.S. has physical evidence that rockets landed only in opposition-controlled or contested territory. But will a U.S. strike actually deter Bashar al-Assad from further attacks, that was what skeptics, including Republican Rand Paul wanted to know.

SENATOR RAND PAUL: I haven't had one person come up to me and say they're for this war, not one person. We get calls by the thousands. Nobody's calling in favor of this war.

KELEMEN: Secretary Kerry says if the U.S. doesn't hold Assad to account, the Syrian regime will do it again.

KERRY: We don't want to go to war in Syria either. It's not what we're here to ask. The president is not asking you to go to war. He's not asking you to declare war. He's not asking you to send one American troop to war.

KELEMEN: Kerry says the president is asking for the authority for a limited strike to degrade and deter the Syrian government's ability to use chemical weapons. The chairman of the foreign relations committee, Robert Menendez, made clear he wants the committee to move quickly on this.

SENATOR ROBERT MENENDEZ: Yes, there are risks to action, but the consequences of inaction are greater and graver still: further humanitarian disaster in Syria, regional instability, the loss of American credibility around the world, an emboldened Iran and North Korea, and the disintegration of international law.

KELEMEN: The ranking Republican, Bob Corker of Tennessee, seems to agree, though he's been pressing the Obama administration to spell out its strategy beyond a limited strike. He argues the U.S. should be doing more to arm and train the moderate opposition fighters.

SENATOR BOB CORKER: I am still totally dismayed at the lack of support we are giving to the vetted, moderate opposition.

KELEMEN: Corker says it's time to move from covert to, as he put it, industrial-strength support.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Nobody wants this court.

KELEMEN: A few protesters in the hearing room held signs reading: Don't bomb Syria, and Syria needs diplomacy, not war. There were also words of caution from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

SECRETARY-GENERAL BAN KI-MOON: I take note of the argument for action to prevent future uses of chemical weapons. At the same time, we must consider the impact of any punitive measure on efforts to prevent the further bloodshed and facilitate a political resolution of the conflict.

KELEMEN: He says U.N. inspectors are just now getting blood and soil samples from Syria to labs for testing, and they need some time. The U.S., though, says it already has the evidence it needs to act, and it doesn't see any possibility of getting U.N. backing as long as Russia sides with the Syrian regime. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

SIEGEL: And tonight, Senator Menendez' committee has drafted a resolution. It would give President Obama up to 90 days to launch strikes, and it would prohibit U.S. combat troops in Syria.

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