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Secretary of State Kerry Remarks about Syria; 1,429 Syrians Killed By Chemical Weapons; U.S. Strike Will Be Limited; Many Members of Congress Urge Caution

Aired August 30, 2013 - 13:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: And has used them on a smaller scale but, still, it has used them against her own people, including not very far from where last Wednesday's attack happened. We know that the regime was specifically determined to rid the Damascus suburbs of the opposition and it was frustrated that it hadn't succeeded in doing so. We know that for three days before the attack, the Syrian regime's chemical weapons personnel were on the ground in the area making preparations.

And we know that the Syrian regime elements were told to prepare for the attack by putting on gas masks and taking precautions associated with chemical weapons. We know that these were specific instructions. We know where the rockets were launched from and at what time. We know where they landed and when. We know rockets came only from regime-controlled areas and went only to opposition controlled or contested neighborhoods. And we know, as does the world, that just 90 minutes later, all hell broke loose in the social media. With our own eyes, we have seen the thousands of reports from 11 separate sites in the Damascus suburbs. All of them show and report victims with breathing difficulties, people twitching with spasms, coughing, rapid heart heartbeats, foaming at the mouth, unconsciousness and death.

And we know it was ordinary Syrian citizens who reported all of these horrors. And just as important, we know what the doctors and the nurses who treated them didn't report. Not a scratch, not a shrapnel wound, not a cut, not a gunshot wound. We saw rows of dead lined up in burial shrouds. The white linen unstained by a single drop of blood. Instead of being tucked safely in their beds at home, we saw rows of children lying side by side sprawled on a hospital floor. All of them dead from Assad's gas and surrounded by parents and grandparents who had suffered the same fate.

The United States government now knows that at least 1,429 Syrians were killed in this attack including at least 426 children. Even the first responders, the doctors, nurses and medics who tried to save them, they became victim themselves. We saw them gasping for air terrified that their own lives were in danger. This is the indiscriminate, inconceivable horror of chemical weapons. This is what Assad did to his own people. We also know many disturbing details about the aftermath. We know that a senior regime official who knew about the attack confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime, reviewed the impact and actually was afraid they would be discovered. We know this. And we know what they did next. I personally called the foreign minister of Syria and I said to him, if as you say your nation has nothing to hide, then let the United Nations in immediately and give the inspectors the unfettered access so they have the opportunity to tell your story. Instead, for four days, they shelled the neighborhood in order to destroy evidence, bombarding block after block at a rate four times higher than they had over the previous 10 days.

And when the U.N. inspectors finally gained access, that access, as we now know, was restricted and controlled.

In all of these things that I have listed, in all of these things that we know, all of them, the American intelligence community has high confidence, high confidence. This is common sense. This is evidence. These are facts.

So, the primary question is really no longer, what do we know? The question is what are we, we collectively, what are we in the world going to do about it? As previous storms in history have gathered when unspeakable crimes were within our power to stop them, we have been warned against the temptations of looking the other way. History is full of leaders who have warned against inaction and difference and especially against silence when it mattered most. Our choices then in history had great consequences. And our choice today has great consequences.

It matters that nearly 100 years ago in direct response to utter horror and inhumanity of World War I that the civilized world agreed that chemical weapons should never be used again. That was the world's resolve then. And that began nearly a century of effort to create a clear red line for the international community. It matters today that we are working as an international community to rid the world of the worst weapons. That's why we signed agreements like the Stark Treaty, the chemical weapons convention which more than 180 countries including Iran, Iraq and Lebanon have signed onto.

It matters to our security and the security of our allies. It matters to Israel. It matters to our close friends, Jordan, turkey and Lebanon all of whom live just a stiff breeze away from Damascus. It matters to all of them where the Syrian chemical weapons are and if unchecked, they can cause even greater death and destruction to those friends. And it matters deeply to the credibility in the future interest of the United States of America and our allies. It matters because a lot of other countries whose policies challenge these international norms are watching. They are watching. They want to see whether the United States and our friends mean what we say. It is directly related to our credibility and whether countries still believe the United States, when it says something, they are watching to see if Syria can get away with it because then maybe they, too, can put the world at greater risk.

And make no mistake, in an increasingly complicated world of sectarian and religious extremist violence, what we choose to do or not do matters in real ways to our own security. Some cite the risk of doing things, but we need to ask, what is the risk of doing nothing? It matters because if we choose to live in a world where a thug and a murderer like Bashar al Assad can gas thousands of his own people with impunity even after the United States and our allies said, no, and then the world does nothing about it, there will be no end to the test of our resolve and the dangers that will flow from those others who believe that they can do as they will.

This matter also beyond the limits of Syria's borders. It is about whether Iran, which itself has been a victim of chemical weapons attacks, will now feel emboldened in the absence of action to obtain nuclear weapons. It is about Hezbollah and North Korea and every other terrorist group or dictator that might every again contemplate the use of weapons of mass destruction. Will they remember that the Assad regime was stopped from those weapons current or future use or will they remember that the world stood aside and created impunity? So, our concern is not just about some far off land oceans away. That's not what this is about. Our concern with the cause of the defenseless people of Syria is about choices that will directly affect our role in the world and our interest in the world.

It is also profoundly about who we are. We are the United States of America. We are the country that has tried, not always successfully, but always tried to honor a set of universal values around which we have organized our lives and our aspirations. This crime against conscience, this crime against humanity, this crime against the most fundamental principles of international community, against the norm of international community, this matters to us. And it matters to who we are. And it matters to leadership and to our credibility in the world.

My friends, it matters here if nothing is done. It matters if the world speaks out in condemnation and then nothing happens. America should feel confident and gratified that we are not alone in our condemnation and we are not alone in our will to do something about it and to act. The world is speaking out and many friends stand ready to respond. The Arab League pledged, quote, "to hold the Syrian regime fully responsible for this crime." The organization for Islamic cooperation condemned the regime and said, we needed, quote, "to hold the Syrian legally and morally accountable for the hanous crime." Turkey said, there is no doubt that the regime is responsible. Our oldest ally, the French, said the regime, quote, "committed this vile action and it is an outrage to use weapons that the community has banned for the last 90 years in all international conventions." The Australian prime minister said he didn't want history to report that we were, quote, "the party to turning such a blind eye."

So now that we know what we know, the question we must all be asking is, what will we do? Let me emphasize, President Obama, we in the United States, we believe in the United Nations. And we have great respect for the brave inspectors who endured regime, gunfire and obstructions to their investigation. But as Bon Ki-Moon, the Secretary General, has said again and again, the U.N. investigation will not affirm who used these chemical weapons. That is not the mandate of the U.N. investigation. They will only affirm whether such weapons were used. By the definition of their own mandate, the U.N. can't tell us anything that we haven't shared with you this afternoon or that we don't already know. And because of the guaranteed Russian obstructionism of any action through the U.N. Security Council, the U.N. cannot galvanize the world to act as it should.

So, let me be clear. We will continue talking to the Congress, talking to our allies and, most importantly, talking to the American people. President Obama will ensure that the United States of America makes our own decisions on our own time lines based on our own values and our interests. Now, we know that after a decade of conflict, the American people are tired of war. Believe me, I am too. But fatigue does not absolve us of our responsibility. Just longing for peace does not necessarily bring it about. And history would judge us all extraordinarily harshly if we turned a blind eye to a dictator's wanton use of weapons of mass destruction against all warnings, against all common understanding of decency. These things we do know.

We also know that we have a president who does what he says that he will do. And he has said very clearly that whatever decision he makes in Syria, it will bear no resemblance to Afghanistan, Iraq or even Libya. It will not involve any boots on the ground. It will not be open ended. And it will not assume responsibility for a civil war that is already well under way.

The president has been clear. Any action he might decide to take will be limited in tailored response to ensure that a (INAUDIBLE), brutal and flagrant use of chemical weapons is held accountable. And ultimately, ultimately we are committed. We remain committed. We believe it's the primary objective is to have a diplomatic process that can resolve this through negotiation because we know there is no ultimate military solution. It has to be political. It has to happen at the negotiating table.

And we are deeply committed to getting there. So that is what we know. That's what the leaders of Congress now know, and that's what the American people need to know. And that is at the core of the decisions that must now be made for the security of our country and for the promise of the planet where the world's most heinous weapons must never again be used against the world's most vulnerable people. Thank you.

BLITZER: So there you hear the secretary of state, John Kerry, making the case very bluntly, very brutally, we should say, in fact, that the United States almost certainly now will go ahead with some sort of limited military response to try to punish the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, irrespective of U.N. inaction, shall we say, irrespective of the lack of an international coalition that will directly contribute military prowess to any bolstering of this U.S. military action.

The secretary of state making it clear the president of the United States is determined to do something, some sort of response to punish Bashar al-Assad and his generals and his top leadership as a result of the killing of these people outside of Damascus on August 21.

The secretary of state saying 1,429 people were killed in those gas attacks. He says 426 of them were children.

Let's bring in Jim Acosta, our senior White House correspondent. Jim, we -- I think there's no doubt that the United States is going to act. The secretary of state saying if the U.S. were to remain silent, that would be a disaster, sending the wrong signal to America's friends and allies. The key question now is when will those Tomahawk cruise missiles, other airstrikes, whatever the U.S. military has planned, when will that begin? I assume it will begin fairly soon, because the president is leaving for Russia in the middle of next week.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: I think that's right, Wolf. But, you know, we should caution the president has not laid out a time line just yet for what his response, as they keep calling it here at the White House, will be.

But you're right. There is sort of, I guess, some tea leaves to read here. The U.N. has said that its weapons inspectors in Syria will be out tomorrow morning. That opens up a window of opportunity, presumably, for the president to take some sort of action between that point and when he leaves for the G-20. So there's about a 72-hour time frame for when the president could act.

And just to go back to what the secretary of state was just saying a few moments ago. It was striking, Wolf, because he was talking about some of the unclassified intelligence that they were willing to put out. He talked about the communications that were intercepted, indicating that people inside the Syrian government orchestrated this.

But over and over again, Wolf, he talked about the videos, how the videos led him to believe that there were signs of chemical exposure, that there were videos that indicated the timing of the attack. And so people have talked about whether or not this is a response to, essentially, a TV event, but it does seem very clear that the videos and the shocking images in those videos really compelled this administration to respond.

And I just wanted to say one other thing, Wolf, because we said a few minutes ago, before the secretary got started, that the vice president was asked about the global response. And he -- we said that, according to a pool note, the pool reporters that were with the vice president said that he said, "I know everybody's on board." That pool note, I should report, Wolf, has been corrected to indicate that he was talking about some leaders from the Baltics that he was with at that moment. He was not talking about, according to this pool report, leaders around the world. So I wanted to clarify that for our viewers, as well, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. The -- the secretary of state making it clear that the U.S. has been getting some rhetorical support from certain members of the Arab League, the Islamic Cooperation Council, Turkey, a NATO ally. He mentioned the French; he mentioned the -- Australia. But is there any evidence, Jim, that any of these elements are ready to provide military back-up to the United States, if the U.S. launches missile or airstrikes?

ACOSTA: We haven't heard that yet. The French president did tell a newspaper in France that he believes that the Syrian regime should be punished for that chemical weapons attack. So we're going to have to wait and find out whether or not the French may contribute some military assets to this mission.

But you know, I have to say, Wolf, one thing that we have been hearing in the last 24 to 48 hours is administration officials saying that the president believes that the national security interests of the United States are at stake here and that he believes an international norm has been violated by this chemical weapons attack and that he feels -- the president feels he must take action to respond to that.

So as Secretary Kerry mentioned during his remarks, that the message is not -- not only to Syria's leader, Bashar al-Assad but around the world that the U.S. won't idly sit by. It was interesting to note, Wolf, that Secretary Kerry also mentioned Iraq and about the concern about emboldening Iran if no response is given to what happened in Syria -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Stand by, Jim Acosta.

Dana Bash is our chief congressional correspondent. Congress isn't even in session right now. They've been getting briefed on the phone, just as we all got briefed right now on television by the secretary of state. But there's no indication, Dana, that Congress is about to break their recess, come back to Washington and vote on a resolution authorizing the use of military force.

DANA BASH, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: No indication at all. In fact, I should just tell you a little bit of news. You mentioned the fact that Congress was briefed, at least key members of the leadership and key committee chairmen last night.

The same thing is going on as we speak. As the secretary of state told the public, the call went out from other administration officials to all members of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committee. And I'm told the same is going to happen on the House side later this afternoon.

And as the secretary was speaking I actually just went back and looked at the letter that the House speaker sent to the president earlier this week for the list of more than a dozen very specific, very pointed questions that he thought it was important for the administration to answer in order to get the backing of the American public for any kind of military strike.

And certainly, he didn't answer all of them, but the secretary did address many of them, in terms of the scope of the -- any military action, he made clear it would be very limited, that the U.S. would not get involved in the civil war that has been ongoing in Syria.

And also just broadly, the reasons, to explain to the American people the reasons that the Obama administration considers what is going on internally in Syria very much in the national security interests of the United States.

Definitely members of Congress who are already really reluctant to go -- to use any military force at all, no matter how limited it is. They're not going to be convinced. But maybe some who are on the fence, who are just looking for explanation, maybe -- to be a little bit more cynical -- cover, will be probably very happy to hear what they heard from Secretary Kerry just now.

BLITZER: All right. We'll continue to watch what's going on. Obviously, this is a critically important story. The secretary of state making it abundantly clear the Obama administration, the president of the United States, will order military action, probably very, very soon, because inaction, in the words of the secretary of state, could be an awful, awful situation for the United States, indeed for the world. The risk of doing nothing, he said, would be unacceptable. So let's get ready for U.S. military action.

He says it will be limited. We'll see exactly what is going to happen. We should know fairly soon.

We'll have extensive coverage coming up later today, throughout the day here on CNN. Certainly, at 5 p.m. Eastern in THE SITUATION ROOM, a special at 6 p.m. Eastern, "The Crisis in Syria."

We'll take a quick break. Much more of our coverage with Suzanne Malveaux in the CNN NEWSROOM right after this.

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SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN ANCHOR: This is CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Suzanne Malveaux.

We want to begin here with Major General Spider Marks, weighing in here, military analyst for CNN, about what we just heard from Secretary of State John Kerry and the administration's response now. What we understand, it's going to be a limited response to the chemical attack in Syria.

Explain to us what you think the administration needs to do. We've seen many different preparations that have been set up. You've got those missiles in place in the Mediterranean Sea aboard those ships. What do you suspect in terms of the scope of this operation, in terms of days, and its effectiveness?

MAJ. GEN. JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS (RET.), U.S. ARMY: Suzanne, I think what will probably happen is within the next 48 hours we will see the United States launch, I couldn't estimate the number of missiles, but I would -- I would probably put a, let me put a number out there and say it will be in the neighborhood of about 100.

And they will go after very fixed targets. Very specific locations that are a part of Assad's war-making capability, that contribute directly to his ability to deliver the chemical weapons.

I don't anticipate the United States will go after the chemical stockpiles. That is a target that could not be struck effectively by cruise missiles. You'd have to use, probably, fixed-wing aircraft. That's a longer discussion.

But I think he'll go after his missiles and his command and control capability and his integrated air defense, which certainly could be somewhat effective against those cruise missiles.

I think, over the course of those two days, you'll see a strike. You'll see the ability to do what's called a battle damage assessment or to measure the effectiveness of that strike, and then to have another strike that goes after it.

So over the course of a couple of days, you might see what might be known as a series of strikes on very fixed targets to assure that they are completely degraded so that Assad's regime loses functionality in terms of its ability to deliver chemical weapons.

It will not address the ongoing civil war.

MALVEAUX: And the fact that all of this has been broadcast in the last three days or so, is there any possibility that Assad's regime has already been moving pieces, moving artillery around those sites where they might be empty by time we actually hit them? Is that possible?

MARKS: Suzanne, it's very, very possible. We've been discussing this for a number of days. What the United States has lost in its element of -- in its effort to build credibility and to build somewhat of a coalition and to establish the credibility of the strike, we've lost the element of surprise, which is a criminal principle of war.

So Assad is no dummy. He might be a criminal and he might be a dastardly individual, but he is not a dummy. They are emptying those sites right. I'm certain they are dispersing their capabilities and, in fact, I would suggest they're probably turning off their command and control capabilities to impose a blackness in Syria. Blackness in terms of radiating targets so it becomes that much more difficult to find those targets if, in fact, they're mobile.

But if you're doing after fixed targets, you'll go after that facility. The sad thing is it might be empty, or more egregiously, he might have -- Assad might, in fact, move women and children into these facilities, and now we're complicit in this incredible, horrific chaos that exists in Syria right now.

MALVEAUX: And General, real quickly here, just to wrap it up. Are there any, also, American lives that might be in danger aboard those ships? Does Syria have the capability to launch a counter attack?

MARKS: They have the capability but it will be denied, so the short answer is no.

MALVEAUX: All right. James "Spider" Marks, thank you so much.

We're going to take a quick break. More analysis and other news after this.

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