WASHINGTON — A threatened, but averted, American missile strike to punish Syria’s government for a chemical weapons attack last summer would not have been powerful enough to change the course in the Syrian civil war, Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday, in an attempt to deflect criticism that the U.S. hasn’t done enough to stem the violence there.
Under pointed questioning by a Senate panel he used to chair, Kerry said the scrubbed strike would have been limited, and would have been aimed only at preventing Syrian President Bashar Assad from delivering more chemical weapons to his forces.
“It would not have had a devastating impact by which he had to recalculate, because it wasn’t going to last that long,” Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “Here we were going to have one or two days to degrade and send a message. … We came up with a better solution.”
That solution, Kerry said, was to negotiate an agreement with Russia to lean on Assad to ship out and destroy his government’s chemical weapons stockpiles, considered to be one of the largest in the world. That agreement came after a frantic few days after President Barack Obama initially threatened to launch a missile strike in response to the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack. Obama pulled back because he decided congressional approval was necessary first.
Obama had earlier threatened that Assad would face consequences if he crossed a “red line” by launching deadly chemical weapons against his own people. The U.S. says more than 1,400 Syrians were killed in the Aug. 21 attack, although human rights groups have reported a lower death toll of below 1,000.
An estimated 140,000 people have been killed in the Syrian civil war that is now in its fourth year – including 60,000 since last August, said Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the panel’s top Republican.
“We didn’t take actions at a time when we could have made a difference; so many on this committee wanted us to do that,” Corker said.
Kerry said more than half of Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile – 54 percent – has so far been shipped out of Syria. He also said the U.S. is sending increased assistance to moderate Syria opposition forces – something they have long pleaded for – but refused to offer any details about what the aid would consist of or where it would go. The U.S. has resisted sending heavy weapons and massive lethal aid to Syrian rebels for fear it would fall into the hands of al-Qaida and other extremist groups who are also fighting Assad in pockets across the country.
Kerry predicted that the war will end only through a negotiated political agreement – not a military strike by outside forces.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has long pushed for more lethal aid for Syrian rebels, scoffed.
“Any objective observer will tell you that Bashar Assad is winning on the battlefield,” McCain said.