Secretary of State John Kerry and Syrian President Assad issue dueling warnings over chemical weapons

LONDON – Secretary of State John F. Kerry issued a strong challenge here Monday to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to turn over his chemical weapon stockpile to avoid a US-led attack.

Asked whether Assad could do anything to avert military strikes, Kerry said, “Sure. He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week. Turn it over. All of it, without delay. And allow the full and total accounting for that. But he isn’t about to do it.”

Assad, in an interview with CBS News that aired Monday morning, issued a warning of his own, saying that the United States should “expect every action” if the US attacks Syria, while saying a response might “Not necessarily from the government.”

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“You have different parties, you have different factions, you have different ideology. You have everything in this region now, Assad said.

Assad personally criticized Kerry, comparing his presentation to the world now to the one then-Secretary of State Colin Powell made in 2003 for the Iraq War. That case was later found to be based on faulty intelligence information.

“In this case, Kerry didn’t even present any evidence,” Assad said on CBS. Kerry has said the intelligence is overwhelming that Assad used chemical weapons on his own people.

The back and forth led to questions about whether Kerry had issued a flat ultimatum to Assad to give up chemical weapons. About 90 minutes after Kerry made the remarks, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said he was not making an ultimatum.

“Secretary Kerry was making a rhetorical argument about the impossibility and unlikelihood of Assad turning over chemical weapons he has denied he used,” she said in a statement. “His point was that this brutal dictator with a history of playing fast and loose with the facts can not be trusted to turn over chemical weapons otherwise he would have done so long ago. That’s why the world faces this moment.”

As Congress begins debate on whether to authorize military strikes, and as Kerry tries to broaden an international coalition, Kerry and Assad are going after one another with increasingly pointed language as the two men – who have a long history together – engage in a test of wills.

“I will happily stand anywhere in the world with the evidence that we have against his words and his deception and his acts,” Kerry said at a press conference here.

“The evidence is powerful,” he added. “And the question for all of us is what we’re going to do about it. Turn our backs? Have a moment of silence?

Kerry said at his press conference that he has offered “real evidence” based on its intelligence. “Evidence that as a former prosecutor in the United States I could take into a courtroom and get admitted,” said Kerry, who worked in the district attorney’s office in Massachusetts. “I personally tried people who’ve gone away for long prison sentences or for life with less evidence than we have for this.”

Kerry also said that Assad had lied to him before, when as chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, he traveled to Damascus at the instruction of the White House. He confronted Assad about transferring scud missiles to Hezbollah, which the US claimed to have evidence of.

“He sat there and simply denied it to my face, notwithstanding the evidence I presented and what we showed him,” Kerry said.

“This is a man who’s just killed through his regime over a thousand of his own citizens,” Kerry added. “He sends scud missiles into schools. He sends airplanes to napalm children. Everybody has seen that. This is a man without credibility.”

The meetings here capped a three-stop foreign tour for Kerry, where he met with European leaders in Lithuania, Arab leaders in Paris, and the British foreign secretary in London.

Kerry has helped establish some international consensus that Assad must be punished for using chemical weapons, even while there is still disagreement over whether military strikes should be used, and whether the United Nations should be involved.

Kerry now quickly transitions from building the case abroad to trying to shore up support at home. After meetings here Monday morning, Kerry was planning to fly back to Washington and provide a late afternoon, closed-door briefing for the entire US House. He will brief the Senate later in the week.

Kerry said the US has evidence that Assad’s regime gave orders to prepare a chemical attack, and deployed forces in the area where it took place. They have physical evidence, he said, where the rockets came from – in a government-controlled area – and where they landed – in a contested area.

US intelligence also has used social media and videos that they have confirmed as accurate using other technology, Kerry said. They also “hear and know the regime is issuing more instructions to stop the attack,” Kerry said.

There are generally three government officials who control the chemical weapons and could authorize such an attack: Assad; his brother; and the military general.

“Syria and Iran have admitted there was a chemical attack,” Kerry said. “They just try to blame it on people who have no scientific capacity to do this—and where there’s no evidence they have any of the weaponry to be able to do it.”

“And most importantly, just as a matter of logic, tell me how they would do it from the center of the regime controlled area and put it into their own people,” he added. “It defies logic. It defies common sense.”

Kerry said the US has more powerful evidence that remains classified, available for members of Congress voting on the authorization but not tot the broader public. He wasn’t sure whether President Obama would authorize the release of more classified information.

“I don’t believe we should shy from this moment,” he said. “The risk of not acting is greater than the risk of acting. And everybody needs to stop and think about that hard.”

Kerry’s involvement in Syrian issues goes back years. As chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry traveled to Damascus in 2009, dining with President Assad and trying to convince a man he viewed as a potential reformer to support broader peace in the Middle East. A photo shows Kerry and his wife, Teresa, dining with Assad and his wife at a restaurant in the heart of Damascus, as waiters stand attentive nearby.

On that 2009 visit, and several others, Kerry requested several things of Assad. He wanted the US to be able to purchase land for the US Embassy in Damascus. He wanted an American cultural center to open, and he wanted border assistance with Iraq.

“Syria is an essential player in bringing peace and stability to the region,” Kerry told reporters after a three-hour meeting with Assad in 2010.