September 5, 2013

US: Chemical attacks make Syria top security risk

The Associated Press

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In this photo taken Aug. 30, 2013, President Barack Obama pauses after answering questions about Syria from members of the media during his meeting with Baltic leaders in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington. In declaring Syria a national security threat, the Obama administration is warning Americans as much about the leaders of Iran and North Korea as about President Bashar Assad. And America’s credibility with those countries will be an immediate casualty if fails to respond to Syria now, administration officials say in making their case for U.S. missile strikes. It’s a connection that’s not immediately clear to most Americans _ especially after the White House refused to send military support earlier in the Syrian war. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

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This Aug. 21, 2013, file image provided by by Shaam News Network, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, purports to show several bodies being buried during a funeral in a suburb of Damascus, Syria. US officials say that a chemical weapon was used by the Syrian regime against civilians in an incident that killed at least 1,400 people last week. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network, File)

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And Washington has repeatedly and sternly warned North Korea against launching underground nuclear tests and missiles that have rattled its regional neighbors and raised concerns that Pyongyang is building a nuclear-tipped rocket that can reach the United States.

"Iran and North Korea are carefully watching our next move," Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., said during the House hearing Wednesday. "A refusal to act in Syria after the president has set such a clear red line will be seen as a green light by the Iranian regime, who will see that we don't have the will to back up our words."

The administration's credibility was already at risk, however, after its muted response to a series of small-scale chemical weapons attacks this spring in Syria that killed a few dozen people.

As a result of those attacks, Obama pledged in June to increase aid to certain vetted rebel groups fighting Assad in a package that officials said included some weapons. But the aid did not start flowing until very recently and, overall, fell far short of being seen as a decisive or forceful action to punish Assad for the attacks.

Kerry on Wednesday said the scope of the August attacks — and strong intelligence indicating that Assad's government was to blame — convinced Obama that his red line had been crossed. Before now, "the president didn't want to rush into something," Kerry said.

The administration is alone in claiming such a high death toll, citing intelligence reports but refusing to be more specific. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which collects information from a network of anti-regime activists in Syria, said over the weekend that it has been compiling a list of the names of the dead and that its toll reached 502.

Obama, in Russia on Thursday for a world leaders' economic summit, has insisted that his red line merely mirrors that of an international treaty banning the use of chemicals weapons. The treaty has been signed by more than 180 countries, including Iran and Russia — two of Assad's key supporters.

Still, recent polls indicate meager support among Americans for using military force in Syria, and many lawmakers, including Obama's fellow Democrats, remain unconvinced.

"I see this potential bombing campaign as a potential next step toward full-fledged war," said Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., who voted against the Senate panel's plan to allow military force in Syria.

Alluding to U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that have cost lives and money for more than a decade, Udall added: "We have been here before."

Mindful of the president's intended legacies of ending the war in Iraq and winding down the one in Afghanistan, the Obama administration recently has rejected any comparisons to Iraq, pledging that any U.S. military action will be very narrow and limited in its mission.

But in pressing the urgency in Syria, the administration reached back to the specter of 9/11 attacks — which killed almost 3,000 people 12 years ago next week — as an example of the danger of inaction.

U.S. intelligence officials warned for years before 2001 of a need to curb al-Qaida's threat before it could spread.

"What can I tell my constituents about why these strikes are in our national security interest? Why these matter to these folks who are struggling every day?" Rep. Ami Bera, D-Calif., asked at the House hearing.

Hagel cited "a clear, living example of how we are not insulated from the rest of the world, how things can happen to the United States in this country if we are not vigilant, and think through these things, and stay ahead of these things, and take action to prevent these things from occurring."

"Maybe something would not happen in this country for a couple of years," Hagel said. "But the 9/11 anniversary, I think, is a very clear example you can use with your constituents."

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