If the bombs start falling on Damascus, Monday afternoon will be cited as the moment when the Obama administration laid out the moral case for military action in Syria.
In a stern statement, Secretary of State John Kerry presented the White House’s case against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and pledged that the United States will hold him accountable for turning his chemical weapons on his own people. Against the background of White House leaks that President Obama has been presented with updated target lists and is mulling military intervention in Syria, Kerry’s remarks had the unmistakable feel of a prelude to war.
"Make no mistake: President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world’s most heinous weapons against the world’s most vulnerable people," Kerry said. "Nothing today is more serious, and nothing is receiving more serious scrutiny."
On the heels of previous allegations of chemical weapons use, the administration has attempted to defuse calls for a military response by emphasizing the need for scientific verification that chemical weapons had in fact been used. That caution was nowhere to be found in Kerry’s remarks on Monday.
"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," Kerry said. "What is before us today is real, and it is compelling."
"The reported number of victims, the reported symptoms of those who were killed or injured, the firsthand accounts from humanitarian organizations on the ground, like Doctors Without Borders and the Syria Human Rights Commission, these all strongly indicate that everything these images are already screaming at us is real, that chemical weapons were used in Syria," Kerry added.
In his daily briefing Monday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney underscored the White House view that chemical weapons were used and that Assad was responsible. "There is very little doubt in our minds that the Syrian regime is culpable," he said.
Since last week’s apparent chemical weapons attack, which left as many as 1,000 people dead in a suburb east of Damascus, there has been a clear shift in tone from the Obama White House, and nowhere was that more on display than in Kerry’s remarks, where the secretary’s personal anguish was placed front and center.
"As a father, I can’t get the image out of my head of a man who held up his dead child, wailing, while chaos swirled around him, the images of entire families dead in their beds without a drop of blood or even a visible wound, bodies contorting in spasms, human suffering that we can never ignore or forget," Kerry said.
Though Obama has at nearly all turns of the Syrian conflict resisted any action that might drag the United States into another war in the Middle East, the latest reports of chemical warfare in the country presents the clearest challenge yet to the president’s now-infamous declaration that the use of such weapons constituted a clear "red line" in the conflict that the Assad regime should think twice about crossing. Now, the Assad regime has flouted that demand and left Obama looking hapless in the face of its brutal tactics.
Taken together, the Obama administration’s actions now point to a readying of the country’s military apparatus to strike back at Syria. On Saturday, President Obama huddled with his national security advisors to consider potential military options, though Carney went to great lengths to emphasize that "no decision has been made" about military force. Meanwhile, American warships with the capability to launch cruise missiles deep into Syrian territory continue to idle in the Mediterranean.
But even if no decision has been made, Carney laid out a deliberate case for war against Syria, which appears to hinge on the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons. "The use of these weapons is a threat to our national interest and a concern to the entire world," Carney said. "It is because this international norm exits and because it has been so clearly violated that we and people around the world have to address this and seek an appropriate response."
For now, the White House appears committed to a political juggling act that protects the president’s options in choosing how to respond. Should he choose to launch a retaliatory strike, his lieutenants have already laid out a case justifying the move. If Obama backs down, his administration has at the very least issued a forceful statement and rattled its saber in a very loud way.