LONDON — Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday an “unbelievably small, limited” military strike will be enough to halt Syria’s use of chemical weapons and hasten a political settlement to the 2½-year civil war.
As Congress got set to debate a U.S. intervention, Kerry sought to reassure the public that the Obama administration won’t let a Syrian campaign evolve into a years-long commitment with ground troops, like the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“We’re not talking about war, we’re not going to war,” Kerry said in a press conference in London after a three- day mission to Europe. He spoke of a “limited, very targeted, very short-term effort.”
Syria’s bid to frustrate that effort took Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem to Moscow Monday, seeking a joint approach with Russia to defuse Western assertions that the Syrian regime is using chemical munitions against its own people. The two allies called for a peace conference instead of U.S. strikes.
Russia seized on a comment by Kerry as a sign that a last- ditch Syrian concession would avert U.S. airstrikes. The top U.S. diplomat said a way out for Syrian President Bashar Assad would be to to turn over “every single bit” of his chemical-warfare stockpile within a week.
Kerry quickly added that Assad “isn’t about to do it.” The State Department then said the United States hadn’t set an ultimatum and that Kerry was making a “rhetorical argument about the impossibility and unlikelihood of Assad turning over chemical weapons he has denied he used,” spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters traveling with Kerry.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov interpreted Kerry as offering to pull the U.S. back from the brink. Speaking to reporters in Moscow, Lavrov said Russia would urge Syria to surrender its chemical munitions if doing so would prevent a U.S.-led strike.
Kerry’s tour yielded a European Union appeal to work through the United Nations, French determination to side with the United States, support from as-yet undisclosed Arab countries and denunciations of Assad from Britain, the American ally in prior Middle Eastern wars which will stay out of this one.
As President Barack Obama took his case to the U.S. public, Assad did the same. In an interview with CBS News correspondent Charlie Rose, Assad denied a role in the Aug. 21 chemical attack near Damascus that the U.S. says killed more than 1,400 people.
The U.S. should “expect every action” in retaliation to an attack on Syria, Assad said in an excerpt broadcast early Monday. “You should expect everything.” The full interview will air on Rose’s Public Broadcasting System show tonight.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague, who briefed the London press with Kerry, warned not to “fall into the trap of attaching too much credibility” to Assad’s declarations.
Obama’s call for a narrowly targeted, rapidly executed strike on Syria’s war-making capability hinges on evidence that the regime carried out the Aug. 21 massacre, one of the darkest days in a civil war that has cost more than 100,000 lives since early 2011.
Kerry offered a timeline of what happened on Aug. 21, saying that Assad’s regime ordered preparations for a chemical attack, moved forces to the location and then launched rockets that “all came from regime-controlled territory and all landed in opposition-controlled or contested territory.”
“We know this,” Kerry continued. “We know that within moments of them landing in that territory, the social media exploded with videos that we also know could not be contrived.”
Congress returns to Washington today from recess. The Democratic-controlled Senate is likely to vote on a Syria resolution by the end of the week. The House, controlled by the opposition Republicans, takes up Syria on Sept. 16.
Also in Moscow, Lavrov said he is working on a joint plan with Syria to dispel concerns about chemical weapons, without providing details. Russian President Vladimir Putin also arranged to meet soon with President Hassan Rohani of Iran, Syria’s longtime ally.
Russia opened another front in Vienna, asking the International Atomic Energy Agency to analyze the potential impact of an attack on Syria’s nuclear-energy production sites. The U.S. said that initiative would overstep the authority of the IAEA, a U.N. agency.
U.S. international lobbying had echoes of the second Bush administration’s assembly of a “coalition of the willing” to back the 2003 invasion of Iraq, be it militarily or politically. Some countries in the U.S. camp want to go further than Obama’s plan for a one-time strike.
Saudi Arabia and Turkey, for example, are pushing for Assad’s ouster. In an editorial today, Arab News, a Saudi newspaper, said “merely seeking stop-gap military intervention is not enough to stem the rot in Syria.”