(CNSNews.com) – The ongoing conflict in Syria has “nothing to do with” the fact the U.S. did not carry out military strikes against the Assad regime in response to a deadly chemical weapons attack, Secretary of State John Kerry said Thursday.
While addressing reporters at the State Department, Kerry was asked about the infamous “red line” episode – when President Obama laid down a “red line” on chemical weapons use in Syria, and then in 2013 allowed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to cross it without consequences.
After the regime killed at least 1,429 people in a chemical attack near Damascus, Obama signaled his intention to carry out punitive strikes, but never went ahead.
As he has done a number of times over the past year, Kerry disputed the notion that the president had actually made a decision not to carry out airstrikes.
Obama had made a decision to bomb, but was looking to get congressional authorization before acting. Then, Kerry and his Russian counterpart negotiated an agreement for Assad to give up his declared chemical weapons.
“The president never retracted his intent to [bomb regime targets],” Kerry declared. “He just got rid of the need to do it, by embracing a different approach that got all the [chemical] weapons out.”
Kerry conceded – again, as he has done before – that the episode damaged the U.S. image in the region, but said that was based on an incorrect “perception” that Obama had been looking for a way out of taking military action.
“The president never said, ‘I won’t drop a bomb.’ What happened was, people interpreted it. The perception was that he was trying to find a different road.”
“And I will acknowledge to you, absolutely, I heard it all over the place, the perception hurt, yes, the perception hurt,” Kerry said. “But the perception came about despite the fact that we actually got a far better result – of getting all of the weapons of mass destruction out of Syria, without dropping a bomb.”
“And if we had dropped a bomb, there’s no guarantee we would have gotten any of them out,” he added.
“Is Syria today a better result, sir?” asked James Rosen of Fox News.
“No,” replied Kerry. “Syria is, is – it has nothing to do with that. What is happening in Syria today has nothing to do with the dropping or not dropping [of U.S. bombs].”
“It has everything to do with whether or not Assad was ready and willing to be held accountable by Russia and Iran to actually live by the agreements that they offered, and also whether or not the opposition was able to act in a way that could create enough leverage, for Assad to have to come to the table and negotiate.”
When Russia intervened on behalf of the regime (in the fall of 2015), Kerry continued, “that whole ballgame changed, we acknowledge that.”
Many opponents of the Assad regime welcomed the prospect of the most powerful nation on earth carrying out even limited airstrikes against it. With hindsight some viewed that as a potentially pivotal moment, believing that U.S. military action could have sped up a resolution to the conflict by pushing Assad to negotiate.
At the time, the death toll in the then two-year-old civil war was about 100,000, according to U.N. estimates. Three-and-a-half years later, the world body estimates that the number of dead has risen to five times that number.
In his remarks at the State Department Thursday, Kerry said that the Obama administration was handing over “a country whose international standing is much improved from 2009, when President Obama took office eight years ago.”