Kerry Claims ‘Very Broad Coalition’ on Syria, But Evidence Is Scant

By Patrick Goodenough | September 4, 2013 | 4:17 AM EDT

Secretary of State John Kerry testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in Washington on Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013. (Image: C-SPAN)

( – As the Obama administration continues to make its case for congressional support for a strike against Syria, its attempts to build anything approaching a broad coalition of supportive nations appear to be struggling, despite Secretary of State John Kerry’s assertions to the contrary.

Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday, Kerry in response to a question by Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said that some 53 “countries and organizations” have acknowledged that chemical weapons were used in Syria last month and have condemned it publicly.

He said 31 countries have publicly blamed the Assad regime for the August 21 chemical attack near Damascus, and that around 34 countries “have indicated that if the allegations are true, that they would support some form of action against Syria.”

“So there’s a very broad coalition that’s growing of people who believe we ought to take action against Syria,” he said.

As for those prepared to actively join the U.S. in a military operation, Kerry said that “we already have more partners ready to do something kinetic than the military feels, under this particular operation, we need to effect that.”

He did not identify those countries, although in a conference call with House Democrats on Monday Kerry reportedly said Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates had offered military assets.

Cardin also asked Kerry about the possibility of NATO participation, since Turkey, a member of that alliance, is on the frontline of the Syrian conflict.

Kerry replied that “all these things” are being considered, noting that he would be meeting in Lithuania on Saturday with European ministers, most of whose countries are NATO members. “So we’ll have some discussions when we’re there, but at the moment it’s a limited operation.”

On Monday, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that while he feels “the international community should react firmly” in response to the chemical attack, “I don’t envisage any further NATO role.”

“It is for individual nations to decide how to react to what has happened in Syria,” he told a press conference in Brussels.

Arabs divided

On August 30, Kerry said that the U.S. is “not alone in our condemnation [of the chemical attack], 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.”

Asked whether the State Department could provide a list of the countries Kerry referred to in his Capitol Hill testimony as having voiced support for “some form of action,” a department spokesman said on Tuesday evening, “We don’t have anything to release at this time.”

As vocal opponents of action to punish Syrian President Bashar Assad -- including Russia, Iran and China -- are speaking out, other countries are not lining up publicly in large numbers with offers of help for such action, or even offering moral support.

Headlines saying the Arab League at a meeting in Cairo Sunday endorsed a military response to the chemical attack are misleading: Not only was the 22-member bloc split, but its call for a response was vague – “deterrent measures” – and invoked the United Nations.

In case there was any doubt, Arab League head Nabil Al-Arabi declared unambiguously after the meeting that a “military option is out of the question.” The Arab states, he said, “consider the United Nations as the official representative of the international community, and only it is responsible to take the necessary measures.”

Even that position did not win support from Arab League members opposed to any international intervention. They included Egypt’s interim government as well as Iraq, Lebanon, Tunisia and Algeria.

“Palestine” – not a state but a full member of the Arab League – also came out subsequently against military action; the Palestinian Authority news agency WAFA on Tuesday quoted P.A. chairman Mahmoud Abbas as saying, “We are against any military strike against Syria, and will not allow an Arab country to be bombed from the outside.”

Syria itself has been suspended from the Arab League, which is therefore effectively divided 15-6 over even U.N.-mandated military intervention in Syria. And the U.N. Security Council will not authorize intervention as long as veto-wielding Russia and China remain opposed.

The one country that has been outspokenly and unequivocally in favor of Western military action is Saudi Arabia.

“We demand that the international community does the action required to stop the bloodshed,” Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said in Cairo on Sunday. “We support them in this, and we don’t find condemnation and denouncement enough. We instead support the international community to use its resources to stop the aggression on the Syrian people before they’re exterminated.”

Turkey’s government is eager to see the back of Assad, and Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel both have spoken of Turkish support for a U.S. strike. But Turkey’s Hurriyet Daily News cited a Turkish official as saying Ankara had discussed a possible role “in any action in which NATO would also participate.”

Rasmussen’s remarks on Monday suggest that the chances of that happening are slim.

Beyond the region

In Europe, British lawmakers on August 29 shot down Prime Minister David Cameron’s bid to involve Britain in a military response to the chemical attack, and no other country apart from France has offered overt military support.

For countries like Germany and Italy, U.N. authorization is a prerequisite.

Canada has voiced support for a “firm and unequivocal response” to the chemical weapons attack but Foreign Minister John Baird said the country “has no plans at this time for a Canadian military mission.”

Further afield, Kerry made calls to counterparts in Australia and New Zealand appealing for support. Like Canada, Australia affirmed moral support for the U.S. taking action but a foreign ministry spokesman said Kerry had neither asked for Australia to provide military support, nor had Australia offered it. New Zealand’s government says it is considering its position.

Appearing on CNN State of the Union on Sunday, Kerry was reminded that when running for president in 2004 he had criticized the Bush administration for relying on “the coalition of the few” in Iraq.

“Well, I think we have a coalition of more than a few [on Syria], but this is a situation that is going to grow as the evidence comes out,” he responded.

“I’ve talked with a number of nations who have offered to be helpful. No decisions have been made about what shape that will take, but I believe that there are many,” Kerry continued. “The Arab League has already spoken out, voices as far away as Japan, New Zealand, Australia, other places have spoken out.”

“I think the world takes enormous affront at this incredible abuse of power, this attack on decency and incredible crime against humanity,” he added. “I think voices will grow over the next days as people see the evidence.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow