Daily Briefing by the Press Secretary
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:30 P.M. EDT
MR. CARNEY: Thank you for being here. We wanted to wait for Ambassador Rice to finish her remarks before starting this briefing.
Today I have with me at the top of this briefing the President’s Deputy National Security Advisor, Tony Blinken, whom many of you know. Tony is here today because while many of us were traveling last week with the President, Tony and other senior administration officials were engaged in the effort to provide detailed information to members of Congress about the chemical weapons attack in Syria on August 21st. He was a part of a group that provided classified briefings to I believe 185 members of the House and Senate, and is engaged in the overall outreach effort that so much of the administration is participating in now.
So what I’d like to do is ask Tony to provide to you at the top here a summation of the presentation that he’s making, together with other officials. And then he can stay and take a few questions, and then I’ve got to let him go to continue that effort and I’ll take your questions on Syria and other matters after that.
With that, here’s Tony Blinken.
MR. BLINKEN: Jay, thanks very much. Good afternoon.
Since the events of August 21st and this use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime against its own people, we reached out almost immediately to members of Congress, who at that point were spread across the country, and we sought their views on what we should do. And we heard different views, as you continue to hear today. But one of the things we heard with near unanimity was a desire by Congress to have its voice heard and its vote counted in this matter. And, of course, the President believes that we’re much stronger and more effective if we can act together, especially on matters of national security.
So the President went out and made the announcement about his intent to take action, but also to seek Congress’s authorization to do so. Since then, we’ve been engaged in a very deliberate and detailed process of trying to provide Congress all of the information we have so that they can make the best informed decision possible. And as Jay said, we’ve conducted over the past week or 10 days a series of briefings -- many of them classified, some of them unclassified -- many conversations, as well on an individual basis with members.
The classified briefings that I took part in, along with senior officials from the intelligence community, the Defense Department, the State Department, and the Joint Chiefs, I believe had about 185 members -- Republicans and Democrats, both Houses
-- take part. And we’ve had individual conversations coming out of those briefings as well.
As we were doing that, we, of course, we’re working to build strong international support. The President at the G20 worked on a joint statement on the need to reinforce the prohibition against the use of chemical weapons. At that time, 11 countries, including the United States, signed on. We now have an additional 15 who joined that statement. Secretary Kerry was in Europe as well, working with Europeans and Arabs. And we’ve been working every day at the United Nations and country by country.
But in terms of what we’ve provided Congress let me just describe the top lines of the briefings -- obviously I won’t get into the classified part. But the bottom line, as told Congress in these briefings, is that we concluded with high confidence that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons on August 21st with rockets and artillery against its own civilians. We told them that we concluded that well over a thousand have been killed, including hundreds of children.
We ran through in detail the intelligence that we have -- intelligence that shows preparation for the attack; intelligence that shows the attack itself and its effects; post-attack observations by key participants; and then more recently, various physiological samples -- blood, skin, as well as soil -- that show that sarin was used.
There’s also been, as you all know, an extraordinary body of contemporaneous public information that's come out about this incident -- videos, social media, much of which has been shown recently on television, eyewitness accounts, reports from NGOs, from doctors, from hospitals, from other countries. And all of this taken together, we told Congress, led us to the conclusion beyond a reasonable doubt that Assad had poisoned his own people with gas on August 21st.
We made the case that it was very important to stand up for the international prohibition against the use of chemical weapons, a prohibition that I think all of you know has been in place basically since the end of World War I. We saw the terrible effects of poison gas being used on soldiers in World War I. The Geneva Protocol emerged saying you can't do this again. One of the very positive benefits of that is that since World War I, not a single U.S. soldier on the battlefield has been exposed to poison gas.
And, of course, we noted for Congress its own strong stances in the recent past on this prohibition -- the Senate overwhelmingly passing the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1997, both houses of Congress overwhelmingly passing the Syria Accountability Act in 2003. That was motivated in part by concern that Syria had chemical weapons. Now Syria has used them.
We made the case that enforcing this prohibition and this norm is profoundly in the national interest, first and foremost, to deter Assad from using these weapons again and making it more difficult for him to do so; to prevent the threshold against use from dropping lower, lower and lower to the point where our own soldiers and citizens could well be exposed; to make a political settlement in Syria more likely, not less likely; and of course to stop the threat to the neighbors, including Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq, which as Secretary Kerry said about a week ago, are just a stiff breeze away from Syria.
And, finally, we made the case because others are watching. Iran is watching what we're doing. North Korea is watching what we're doing. Hezbollah is watching what we're doing. If we don't stand up and enforce this prohibition, they will take the wrong lesson from it.
Many members asked how what we proposed to do fit into our larger strategy for Syria. And we explained that as we act to deal with the chemical weapons problem, it's in the context of a broader strategy that we've been pursuing for some time to try and bring the civil war in Syria to an end, to a negotiated political transition. We believe that's the best way to do it because it offers the greatest prospect for their not being a vacuum after Assad leaves that could be filled by things as bad, if not worse, and also the best prospect for keeping the country and its institutions together.
And so that broader strategy to deal with the underlying conflict has involved putting pressure on the Assad regime, isolating it, denying it resources. It's involved building up the opposition. It's involved a humanitarian program, the largest in the world by any single country. And it's involved a diplomatic track to get agreement on basically what the principles for a political transition would look like.
What we're proposing to do to deal with the use of chemical weapons on August 21st is taking place in the context of that larger strategy. It's separate from it, but it's happening simultaneous to it. And of course, the primary objective of the force that we propose to use is to deter Assad from using the weapons again, is to degrade his ability to do so. But it could also have the additional benefit of advancing the broader strategy of ending the civil war by making it clear to Assad that we can hold at risk things that he holds very dear.
Finally, the last two points that we made in our briefings to Congress, along with some of the -- again, the details of the intelligence and some of the military plan that we're looking at, is we thought it was very important to say what this is and what this isn’t, because what we found in our engagement with members is that many of them had just returned from their home states and their home districts, and they were going to state fairs, they were going to town halls, and they were hearing from their constituents. And it is perfectly normal and understandable that when an American hears in the news a headline, or on television hears military action in Syria, they immediately think of the last 10 years. The frame that they process that through is a decade of war -- Iraq, Afghanistan -- 100,000 American troops in one, 150,000 American troops in the other.
So we made it very clear to the members of Congress we were engaged with what this is and what this isn’t. What this is, is a limited, tailored, but effective military action to deal with the use of chemical weapons. What it is not is open-ended. It is not boots on the ground. It’s not Iraq. It’s not Afghanistan. It’s not even Libya.
Finally, the case we made to members of Congress involved balancing the risks of action against the risks of inaction. We made it clear that there are always risks in taking military action, and we spend many hours trying to game them out, to take steps to prevent them, and to mitigate them. But it’s our judgment that the consequences of inaction are much greater and graver still.
If we don’t act, the international norm against the use of chemical weapons would be dangerously weakened. The threshold for the use of these weapons would get lower and lower. The message to Assad would be that he can act with impunity -- and he’ll do it again. It would make a political settlement in Syria less likely. It would send a message to our partners and allies that we don’t mean what we say. And it would send a message to Iran, North Korea, and other groups that it’s safe to pursue and indeed even use these weapons with impunity.
So that’s the case we made. And we, of course, asked Congress to support a limited but decisive response to the use of chemical weapons.
And let me stop with that.
MR. CARNEY: With that, we’ll start with a few questions for Tony.
Q Thank you. Thanks for doing this today. One of the other questions that some lawmakers have is whether the President plans to proceed with a strike regardless of how they vote. They don’t want to take sort of a meaningless vote here. And you said over the weekend that it’s neither the President’s desire, nor his intention to use his authority without congressional backing. Do you stand by that statement that he’s not going to -- he has no intention of striking without congressional authority?
MR. BLINKEN: So I think what’s important here is that, again, we heard at the very outset in our earliest consultations with members of Congress that they wanted their voices heard and their votes counted in this. And that’s the reason that the President went to Congress, because he believes we’re stronger when we act together. And we heard clearly from them, including a letter signed by nearly 200 members of Congress early on that they wanted to be in on this debate.
I’m not going to jump ahead of the process. I didn't speak very artfully. The President -- it is clearly his desire and intent to secure the support of Congress for this action, but I don't want to get into any hypotheticals about what will or will not happen after the vote.
Q So you’re not necessarily standing by that?
MR. BLINKEN: I’m saying that there’s no point in jumping ahead of where we are now.
Q Tony, as you gather more evidence, this physiological evidence that you said, have you moved passed having simply a high degree of confidence to 100 percent certitude that this happened?
MR. BLINKEN: So here’s what’s important to understand. The intelligence community has different levels of confidence that it expresses in any given assessment: low, medium and high. High is as high as they can go. They will not tell you with 100 percent guarantee that anything has happened in terms of the assessment that they make. They put together the facts, and we have certitude in the facts, and you put those facts together and you make an assessment, and then you evaluate that assessment, you grade it. And their grade is “high confidence.”
That is well beyond “beyond a reasonable doubt,” which is a standard that I think many Americans are familiar with, and that is the standard that we’ve been using.
Q Tony, did this decision go all the way up to Assad himself?
MR. BLINKEN: Assad, we believe and we have the intelligence and evidence to back this up, is in control of the chemical weapons program and would have -- let me put it this way -- any standing orders to use these weapons would have been issued by Assad. And our colleagues in the intelligence community showed in great detail the different individuals in the chain of command who were engaged in the activities of August 21st.
Q Tony, a couple of things. Charlie Rose interviewed President Assad and said several things. I won't go all through them. But among the things he said, there will be repercussions if there is a United States military strike, and that the United States should be fearful of that -- direct and indirect repercussions. He made a couple of veiled references to 9/11. I’d like get your reaction to that.
Secondly, today the Syrians and the Russians have announced this concept of international supervision and control of or maintenance of the chemical weapons stockpiles in Syria. Do you have a reaction to that? Or is that something that the administration would regard as a favorable move, or not?
And lastly, you’ve had the briefings, but you’ve lost ground in the Senate. There are more Senate Democrats saying they don't want to support this than do. Why are you losing ground?
MR. BLINKEN: First question with regard to Assad’s comments, let me just say this. First of all, we take every possible precaution to make sure that we can prevent and defend against anything that might arise from the use of military action, and we've done that and will continue to do that. And it is our judgment that President Assad and Syria would have very little interest in picking a fight with the United States of America. So I don't think that is likely at all.
Second, with regard to the reports today about this Russian initiative, we have seen the reports. We want to take a hard look at the proposal. We'll obviously discuss the idea with the Russians. And of course, we would welcome a decision and action by Syria to give up its chemical weapons. The whole point of what we're doing is to stop Syria from using these weapons again.
But I think it’s important to keep a few things in mind. First of all, the international community has tried for 20 years to get Syria to sign on to the Chemical Weapons Convention, joining 189 other countries in doing so. Now it is one of only five countries that haven't done it. And just last week President Assad wouldn't even say whether he had chemical weapons despite overwhelming evidence he’s actually used them --
Q Actually, in the interview --
MR. BLINKEN: Well, exactly. And of course, we've also tried to work with the Russians at the United Nations repeatedly on Syria and chemical weapons for months. And until now they have blocked all of our initiatives including simple press statements, never mind a Security Council resolution.
So that's the background. It’s also important to note that Syria has one of the largest stockpiles of chemical weapons in the world; it’s spread across the country. It would certainly take time, resources, and probably a peaceful environment to deal with this.
All of that said, we're going to take a hard look at this. We'll talk to the Russians about it. But I think it’s very important to note that it’s clear that this proposal comes in the context of the threat of U.S. action and the pressure that the President is exerting. So it’s even more important that we don't take the pressure off and that Congress give the President the authority he’s requested.
Finally, in terms of where we are with Congress, my sense is this from all these briefings -- my sense is that when members of Congress have a chance to see the intelligence, to read it, to get the briefings, to ask questions, they come away convinced of two things: Chemical weapons were used on August 21st against civilians in Syria, and the Assad regime is the one that used them. Many, many members have yet to get this classified brief. And now, as they’re coming back today and this week, they’ll have the opportunity to do that. And we have senior officials going out to provide the same briefing we gave last week. And I believe that when they see the evidence, it is compelling, it’s overwhelming.
And then it comes down to a pretty basic question: Are we or are we not going to do anything about the fact that Assad poisoned his own people with gas, including hundreds of children? That’s the question before the members of Congress. And when they have the evidence, when they see the facts, I think they’ll come to the right conclusion.
Q You said you’re taking a hard look -- the administration is taking a hard look at what the Russians have offered. Does that mean that the Secretary of State, when he mentioned this idea in Britain earlier today, that that was a proposal coming from this administration?
MR. BLINKEN: No, no, no -- we literally just heard about this as you did some hours ago. So we haven’t had a chance to look at it yet. We haven’t had a chance to talk to the Russians about it yet. We will.
Q But you’re aware that the Secretary said that Assad could turn it over, all of it, without delay. That was not -- I mean, that seemed to set off this --
MR. BLINKEN: No, I think he was speaking -- I believe he was answering questions, speaking hypothetically about what if Assad were to do this. And, of course, we would welcome Assad giving up his chemical weapons, doing it in a verifiable manner, so that we can account for them and destroy them. That’s the whole purpose of what we’re trying to achieve -- to make sure that he can’t use them again. That would be terrific.
But, unfortunately, the track record to date, including recent statements by Assad not even acknowledging that he has chemical weapons, doesn’t give you a lot of confidence. But that said, we want to look hard at what the Russians have proposed, and we will.
Q I just want to make sure -- so is this an ultimatum coming from this White House to Bashar al-Assad? This is an escape hatch for him?
MR. BLINKEN: Again, we will look at what the Russians have proposed. We’ll talk to them about it, and we’ll see where it goes.
Q If I can, just within the last hour, Susan Rice said that failing to respond would increase instability in that region. For a lot of Americans, the concern is that the opposite would take place. In fact, if we did respond, that would create further instability in the region. How can you assure Americans and Congress members that that’s not what would take place -- there would be further instability if we took action?
MR. BLINKEN: I think the case is very compelling that a failure to take action would produce all sorts of very, very negative consequences in terms of the interests of countries in the region, many of whom are our partners and allies, and in terms of the United States.
First and foremost, we know with some degree of certitude that the failure to take action would say to Assad, you can use these weapons again and again and again, and do it with impunity. And the more you have chemical weapons used in Syria, the chances of it spilling over to other countries and affecting them, eventually affecting us, goes higher and higher.
Second, as you know, we have a real concern that countries that either have these kinds of weapons or aspire to get them will watch, and if we don’t take action, they’ll conclude that they can seek to acquire them and, indeed, use them with impunity. So all of that adds to the level of risk and danger and threat to the United States.
In terms of taking action, again, what we’re talking about, it’s very important to understand: This is limited, it’s focused, but we believe effective in terms of telling Assad, don’t use this again, and also making it more difficult for him to do so in a very practical way. It is not going to war with Syria. It is not Iraq. It is not Afghanistan. It’s not boots on the ground.
And so I think the chances of the action we propose to take leading to greater instability are very, very, very small. To the contrary, a failure to act offers the real prospect of greater instability.
Q So then for Americans that fear after the first few days of strikes -- these limited, targeted, though effective strikes -- what happens on day four, five, and six? What is the plan in that vacuum that could be created as a result?
MR. BLINKEN: So you’ll understand I can’t get into the details or the plan. We’ve had an opportunity to get into this with members of Congress in a classified setting. Ultimately, they have to make a judgment. They’re the people’s representatives. And I wish we could go into more detail with everyone, but that’s why you have elected representatives. That’s their responsibility to make that judgment as well.
Q Did Putin discuss this with the President in St. Petersburg -- this idea of international control of the chemical weapons stockpiles?
MR. BLINKEN: So I was not in St. Petersburg. I was back home, so I defer that to Jay.
MR. CARNEY: Perfect segue. Thank you, Tony.
MR. BLINKEN: Thanks very much.
MR. CARNEY: Major, in answer to your question, we’ve been having conversations with the Russians for a long time about the chemical weapons in Syria, the threat they pose to the region, especially in an environment as we’ve seen in Syria of civil conflict and war. And this has been an ongoing conversation. I don’t have a specific conversation to --
Q -- in the pull-aside in St. Petersburg?
MR. CARNEY: I don’t have any more of a readout of that conversation than we provided so far except to say that Syria was, as it has been for quite some time, a subject of conversation between the two leaders and all the various counterparts who have engaged in conversation between the U.S. and the Russians over these past several weeks and months.
Q Tony wouldn’t, but can you explain why the American people should believe -- absent the classified information you’re not going to give us -- that you can effectively persuade Bashar al-Assad not to use chemical weapons again with a military strike without targeting the chemical weapons stockpiles?
MR. CARNEY: What we can say, Wendell, is that in a effective but limited way, we can degrade Assad’s capabilities -- specifically his capabilities to deploy again chemical weapons, and make clear to Assad the significant consequences of using those weapons.
And I think it’s important, within the context of some of the questions that Tony just answered, that the only reason why we have a dynamic today where the Russians have proffered a proposal and there’s been some response from the Syrians with regards to stockpiles of chemical weapons that they have heretofore not even acknowledged they have is because of the intense pressure being placed on Assad by the prospect of the United States engaging in military force in response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people on August 21st. And that is why it is so important to continue to put that pressure on Assad and to make clear to him that a prohibition that has been in place in many ways for a hundred years should not be violated without consequence.
And when you talk about not putting forth classified information -- of course, there is some information that we cannot, but there has been an enormous amount of information put forward to members of Congress and the public, and that is continuing to this day, that demonstrate that chemical weapons were used on August 21st to horrifying effect.
I really think it is something that everyone should do -- every adult, certainly, should do who has a concern about this -- to view those images that were shown over the weekend and I believe are available now, that demonstrate the horrific consequences of that attack on civilians and, in particular, children, and then ask themselves if they agree, as every member of Congress who’s had this briefing agrees, that chemical weapons were used on August 21st and that the Assad regime is responsible, and that that is in violation of a longstanding international prohibition -- should we do something about it? Should there be consequences for it? And if not, what the result of that inaction would be.
Q If I could follow that. Are you saying, then, that this proposal the Russians have announced to try and pressure Assad to put his chemical weapons under international supervision is a result of the U.S. determination, the U.S. push for military action? And in light of that, how do you respond to --
MR. CARNEY: I think it has very explicitly been stated --
Q If I can finish -- from lawmakers who say that the President got to this too late?
MR. CARNEY: The use of chemical weapons on a wide-scale basis occurred on August 21st, a few weeks ago. The President decided that it was entirely appropriate in a circumstance like this to seek authorization from Congress, because we are stronger and more effective when we act in a unified manner. So I do not think that this has been a question of responding too slowly.
In fact, in response to, as Tony said, the demands and suggestions of members of Congress that their voices be heard and their votes be counted, the President agreed. And we have engaged in an effort to present facts to members of Congress so that they can make their own assessment about whether or not this international prohibition should be backed up, and that a violation of it should have consequences, because as Tony just said in response to Peter, the alternative is greater instability. If there are no consequences, Assad gets the message that he’s free to use these weapons going forward. And what you have potentially is an unraveling of that international prohibition against the use of chemical weapons with potentially even more devastating consequences in the region and the world.
Q And the Russian proposal growing out of this push for military action?
MR. CARNEY: I think it has been explicitly stated by Russian officials that this is an effort to avert action being taken by the United States with the support of many nations and hopefully with the support of Congress. And so I think it's explicitly in reaction to the threat of a retaliation for this use of chemical weapons against civilians.
Mara, and then Julie.
Q Today, John McCain, who’s been one of your real allies in this, joined the kind of chorus of critics of your lobbying effort. And specifically, he took exception to Secretary Kerry's remark that the strike would be "unbelievably small." He said that was "unbelievably unhelpful." Can you explain what Kerry meant by saying it was "unbelievably small"?
MR. CARNEY: Certainly. I think that Secretary Kerry clearly was referring to that in the context of what the United States and the American people have experienced over this past 10, 12 years, which includes large-scale, long-term, and as it seemed at least prior to President Obama coming into office, open-ended military engagements with boots on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq.
And that is the contrast that Secretary Kerry was making. I don't think that the phrasing reflects some error. It's a fact that by comparison this is certainly much more limited and of a smaller duration and size.
Q He wasn't talking about the results with the "unbelievably small." He was talking about the operation itself, right?
MR. CARNEY: We said very clearly that if implemented that the action would in important ways degrade Assad's capabilities and certainly deter him from further use of chemical weapons.
Q But wait, Jay, are you saying -- does the White House --
MR. CARNEY: Jon, I did call on Julie. And then I'll get to you. Thanks.
Q I think we all get that this chemical weapons security proposal from the Russians may be an effort on their part to try to avert military action. But I think the question is, is it also a U.S. effort to try to avert military action? Did John Kerry purposefully raise this possibility this morning as a way to try to find another option here besides a strike?
MR. CARNEY: I think you can accept that it is our position, and has been for some time, that the Syrian regime not only should not use but should not possess stockpiles of chemical weapons. And we would welcome any development -- and would have for some time now -- that would result in the international control of and destruction of Syria's chemical weapons stockpile. What I think you're seeing in a very fluid environment is with the threat of military action, Syria and Russia -- which has clearly been an ally of Syria -- coming up with potential proposals that might, if implemented, avert military action.
Now, I think it's important to say that we will study this. We will work with the Russians and speak with them. But it is also important to note, of course, that we would have some skepticism about the Assad regime's credibility -- as was noted by Major I think, even as recently as in the last 24 hours Assad has refused to even acknowledge that he possesses chemical weapons, which, of course, the whole world knows that he does. The whole world knows that he uses them.
Q Was this a coordinated thing today with Kerry saying this, as far as raising this possibility and then the Russians coming out with a proposal?
MR. CARNEY: I’m not going to -- I think what I will only say is that there are ongoing conversations on this matter at the highest levels, and obviously that includes conversations with the Russians. And we will study that proposal that, as Tony said, has just come forward and see if there is action that can be taken upon it.
But we have to be mindful of the failure of the Assad regime for so long now, 20 years, to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention; for the last several years to allow for -- or at least the last year -- to allow for U.N. inspectors until the last moment in the wake of the August 21st attack, and only then after they stalled U.N. inspectors for days while they bombarded the neighborhood. So this is not a history of promises being kept.
Having said that, we’ll certainly look at this and we’ll certainly discuss it with the Russians. It is important to note, as I’ve said, that we would not be having this conversation, that any positive reaction to the suggestion that they would forsake their chemical weapons by the Syrian government would never have been forthcoming if it weren’t for the fact that there is the credible threat of U.S. military action in response to their use of those weapons.
Jon, I think I said, and then Scott.
Q All right, so to follow up on both those -- would the administration be willing to delay military action while taking a hard look at this Russian proposal?
MR. CARNEY: Well, we’ll have discussions with the Russians. We’ll have discussions with others. I think the Secretary General has made some statements today that are related in the broader sense to this disposition of Syrian chemical weapons.
Meanwhile, we are engaged in an effort to discuss and provide information -- discuss with and provide information to lawmakers here in Congress, as many more of them make their way back to Washington, and avail themselves of the kinds of briefings that Tony discussed in our effort to secure authorization from Congress. So this is not -- this effort is ongoing, and I’m sure that on a parallel track, that conversations will take place with Russians and others with regards to this possible proposal.
Q So was that a yes, that while you’re having -- would the administration delay military action while taking a hard look at this proposal, while having those discussions you just -- I mean you’re not going to start bombing Syria while you’re negotiating with the Russians, are you?
MR. CARNEY: But you’re spinning forward here. We’ve just had a proposal articulated by the Russians with a response of sorts by the Syrian Foreign Minister, as reported anyway, and we’ll engage in conversations about that. But we are -- in terms of military action, we are obviously engaged with Congress at this point. So while we have these discussions with the Russians and others, we will continue in the effort with Congress.
I think I said Scott -- Jon and then Scott, yes.
Q But is this notion of an “unbelievably small effort” were the words of the Secretary of State -- does the White House stand by that characterization that this would be an unbelievably small effort?
MR. CARNEY: I think it’s important here -- and this goes to I think Julie’s first question, too, to Tony Blinken -- that you guys -- we’re spending a lot of time making the case in public and with members of Congress. I think it’s very clear what that case is. You can focus on phrases that a senator might take issue with, but you know exactly what Secretary Kerry was referring to, just as I think Tony made clear what he was referring to in terms of the President’s focus right now.
The size and scope of the contemplated military action is small in comparison to what we have been engaged in, in this country for the past dozen years -- large-scale, open-ended military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan with enormous costs to military families, enormous sacrifice and bravery and courage, and obviously enormous financial cost.
The President committed, when he ran for office, to end the war in Iraq responsibly, and he has done that. He has committed -- after making sure that we focused in an appropriate way on the effort in Afghanistan, and that included plusing up our forces -- to winding down that war, and he is keeping that commitment.
This is something quite different. This is a response to the violation of an international prohibition against the use of chemical weapons that would be limited in scope, would involve no boots on the ground -- no American troops serving on the ground in Syria -- in an operation that would be limited in scope and duration, but would have a specific impact on Assad’s capabilities, in response to this abominable violation of the international prohibition against the use of chemical weapons.
In the meantime, we would engage with the Russians and with others in the effort to bring about the only possible outcome in Syria in terms of the civil war, and that is a political settlement.
Q Thanks, Jay. You’ve talked about the need to act now to deter future chemical weapons use. Is there regret inside the White House that a swifter, more forceful White House response the last time chemical weapons were used in Syria eight months ago may have deterred this use this time?
MR. CARNEY: There is a significant difference in terms of the size and scope and impact of the use that we saw on August 21st and the prior instances that we assessed and the intelligence community assessed with high confidence represented the use of these weapons by the Assad regime. And it is because of the overwhelming scope of this use -- the amount of chemical weapons used, the breadth of the consequences when it comes to civilian casualties -- that it is the President’s view and the view of many others that this must be responded to, that Assad has to be held accountable.
And in response to those earlier uses, we obviously took action, as did other members of the international community, in terms of stepping up our assistance to the Syrian opposition, including the military opposition. But this case is obviously far more egregious, as anybody who has seen those videos and other evidence knows.
Q But that’s not so much comparing apples to apples.
MR. CARNEY: The answer to your question is, no, we obviously took action in response to those much smaller-scale uses of chemical weapons. This is qualitatively, in the most horrific way --
Q It was handled correctly and would not have been able to prevent this no matter how you reacted?
MR. CARNEY: I believe that we took appropriate action then. And in seeking congressional authorization for limited military now, we’re doing the right thing.
Q You made a slight reference to this earlier. The U.N. Secretary General is thinking about taking this to the Security Council of transferring Syria’s chemical weapons to safe sites where they can be stored and destroyed. Is that something you want?
MR. CARNEY: I was just simply responding to the fact that the Secretary General, as I saw on television before I came out here, was also discussing the issue of the disposition of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile, to say that these conversations are taking place in the context of the threat of U.S. military action in response to the use of chemical weapons against innocent civilians in Syria on a massive scale that led to the agonizing deaths of more than 1,400 people, including more than 400 children.
How this plays out will obviously depend on the conversations we have with the Russians and the level of seriousness in response to those proposals that the Syrian government brings to the discussions. There’s not a great history here when it comes to Syrian credibility or the Assad regime’s credibility. But we would certainly discuss this with the Russians as well as with the Secretary General.
Let me give others -- Major and then I’ll get to the back, Carol.
Q Do you want Congress to wait while you assess the credibility of this Russian-Syrian proposal?
MR. CARNEY: No. As I think Tony said and others have said even in the last couple of hours, that it’s precisely because of the process we’ve undertaken in enlisting international support and the process we are undertaking in making the case to members of Congress, and the resulting threat of military force that that has produced, we are seeing these proposals, we’re seeing this potential avenue put forward. And it is because that pressure exists that we cannot let up in applying that pressure. And we need to make clear to Assad, as well as the Russians and others, that we’re very serious about the need to respond to the violation of this important prohibition.
And we also need to make clear that there are consequences to inaction when it comes to our national security: more instability in the region; the threat of further use of chemical weapons; the threat of proliferation of these weapons around the region and the world; and the signal that failing to hold Assad accountable would send to Tehran and Hezbollah and other potential bad actors when it comes to the use of these kinds of weapons.
Q The only reason I ask is, as you know, Senator Manchin and Senator Heitkamp had this proposal -- I asked the President about it in St. Petersburg on Friday -- about a 45-day period to give the Syrians a chance to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention, hand over their chemical weapon stockpiles. These things now appear to be merging in public. Is that an alternative that the administration would support? Or would it prefer the Senate only deal with the authorization before it and consider no other matters?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I would refer to specific timetables in the Senate to the Senate Majority Leader’s office. What we are focused on is making the substantive case to lawmakers, as well as to the public -- and we’re engaged in a broad effort from the President on down to do that -- about what happened on August 21st, the incontrovertible fact that weapons were used that night -- chemical weapons were used that night to horrifying effect, and the fact that beyond a reasonable doubt, the Assad regime was responsible for the use of chemical weapons on that night, and we need to -- as a matter of our own national security interest -- take action, with the support of many nations around the world and with the support of Congress. And that’s why we’re making the case.
Q One last thing. To the degree you’re aware of it, Charlie Rose had this interview with Assad. Do you have any comment on some of the many things that Assad said about his regime, about his chemical weapons, about other elements of possible repercussions if there are attacks? Has the President been made aware or briefed on the contents? Because it’s kind of -- we haven’t heard from Assad in this kind of extensive format. I wonder if you had any overall assessments or to the degree the President has been briefed.
MR. CARNEY: Well, the President, obviously, is being briefed regularly on situations with regard -- with matters with regard to the situation in Syria. And I don’t know specifically what he was briefed on when it came to the Assad interview, but I’m very confident he’s aware of it.
What Tony said in terms of the threat of repercussions is what I will echo, which is that we obviously assess what kind of reactions or actions might be taken in response to the kind of action we’re contemplating. I think Tony’s assessment that we do not believe it would be -- that the Assad regime would view it as in their interest to engage in a war with the United States.
Q Or Hezbollah.
MR. CARNEY: And I think that's true there, too. But we will take every precaution necessary. We are very confident that we are more than capable of responding to or handling any reaction to that action.
Q Last Friday, Samantha Power said that the administration had exhausted all alternatives to military force in regards to Syria. Does the White House believe that the administration has exhausted all alternatives to military force?
MR. CARNEY: We have spent the two years that there has been a civil war in Syria engaging the international community, trying to get the United Nations Security Council to act and hold Assad accountable. Russia and China have blocked those efforts. We have worked in a concerted way with the opposition and with many partners around the world in providing support to the moderate opposition, as well as significant humanitarian relief to the Syrian people who have been so horribly affected by this conflict.
When it comes to the use of chemical weapons, we have made clear again and again to the Assad regime -- from the President on down -- that there would be consequences. And there must be consequences for the use of chemical weapons. And that was deliberate because it was -- in our view, it would be a terrible thing, a terrible precedent if Assad were to use those weapons in this conflict. Now he has done so, and he has done so on a massive scale with all the horror as a result that we've seen. Now, that is why we are where we are, and that is why the President has been making this case internationally and why he has been making this case domestically.
We will obviously, in response to what we've talked about here, assess proposals put forward by the Russians, assess other proposals. But the fact is Assad used these weapons against his own people, murdering more than 1,400 -- including more than 400 children. And if everyone acknowledges that that's the case, as every lawmaker who has had this briefing has acknowledged is the case, then the question only becomes, should there be consequences for that. And that is the question we're asking every lawmaker as they contemplate this vote.
Q So the answer is, no, you haven't exhausted all --
MR. CARNEY: I'm not sure. I mean, this is --
Q I mean, if you're reviewing the Russian proposal, then you're essentially saying that --
MR. CARNEY: When she said that, the Russian proposal hadn't been proffered. I think it was proffered in the last couple of hours.
Q Right. So what I'm asking is -- I’m asking has that changed. Is your view right now -- the White House's view -- that you have exhausted all other options besides the military force, or you haven't?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think we've answered this question -- because there is now this new statement by the Russians, the Foreign Minister, as well as a response by the Syrian Foreign Minister, and we are going to study it and engage with the Russians and others on it. But we must continue to keep the pressure on the Assad regime with the threat of U.S. military action, because it is precisely that threat that has even led to this kind of proposal. I think that's clear to anybody who is watching this.
MR. CARNEY: Nadia, sorry.
Q Do you see the Syrian government acceptance of the Russian proposal as an admission from the Syrian government they actually have chemical weapons? Because they never admitted it before? And, second, a spokesman for the Syrian opposition dismissed the Russian proposal as a gimmick. And the State Department already says that they have doubts about the Russian proposal. What the White House is saying now is that they're willing to give it a consideration. Is this contradictory?
MR. CARNEY: No. I think we've made clear that we're highly skeptical of the credibility of the Syrian regime. And I think that as early as this morning, at least when it was broadcast, and so I think within the last couple of days, Bashar al-Assad would not even acknowledge that his country had stockpiles of chemical weapons, let alone acknowledge that his regime used them on multiple occasions, most significantly on August 21st.
So that is just the beginning of a case for why there should be ample skepticism -- and there is. But there is no question, because of the potential for U.S. military action, that we have seen some at least indications of a potential acceptance of this proposal. But this is a very early stage. And we're obviously going to discuss this with the Russians. We're obviously going to study it. But we will do so with a certain amount of skepticism, for obvious reasons.
And I think the response that I've seen anyway, the public response that I've seen from the Syrian government, the Assad government, so far falls fairly short of even acknowledging that they have these weapons.
Q Jay, just a quick follow-up. The German government seems also to be on board with the Russian proposal.
MR. CARNEY: I'm sorry?
Q The German government seems to be on board with the Russians in the same proposal that apparently has been discussed during the G20, that actually there is a political solution whereby Assad will exit before 2014 election, which is --
MR. CARNEY: Well, that's separate from --
Q -- to the chemical weapons
MR. CARNEY: Right, so you're talking about -- there's the matter of the use of chemical weapons and the disposition of the Syrian chemical weapons stockpile. Separate from that, there is an ongoing effort -- and we work with the Russians on this -- within the context of the Geneva system that has been in place where we are trying to bring about a political resolution to the Syrian conflict. That is the only resolution achievable that would allow for the Syrian state to remain in place, for institutions to remain in place, and that would allow for a semblance of stability in the aftermath of this conflict.
And it is our strongly held view that a leader who has massacred his own people, and who has gone so far as to fire chemical weapons -- sarin gas -- and gassed his own people to death has long ago forsaken any opportunity or credibility he might have to continue to lead his people.
But that is -- we are absolutely engaged in that process, and we have had that discussion and will continue to have that discussion with the Russians, as well as many other nations that understand that the only resolution to this conflict in the long term has to be through a political negotiation.
Alexis, and then Anita.
Q Jay, can I just follow up on two things? Can I just clarify -- for those senators who are either unsure right now how they would vote this week, or reluctant to vote for approval based on the resolution they’ve seen so far, and they come and they talk to the administration and they're interested in this potential avenue that you’ve described here that we’ve discussed, what is the White House going to tell them if they say they’d like to know more about the outcome of that potential avenue before they cast a vote this week? What’s the answer?
MR. CARNEY: Well, again I think we need to note, as Tony did, that this proposal has only recently been put forward, first of all. And we are going to study it, and we’re going to speak with the Russians, and we’ll speak with others about it and assess it.
Two, we will explain to lawmakers -- and I think it a fairly easy case to make -- that the only reason why we are seeing this proposal is because of the threat of U.S. military action in response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons. Heretofore, the Russians have not been very helpful when it comes to -- at all helpful when it comes to holding Assad accountable for either his use of chemical weapons or his wholesale slaughter of his own people. And certainly, the Assad regime has not been cooperative when it comes to U.N. inspections into their use of chemical weapons or even acknowledging the fact that they have these stockpiles, let alone that they used them.
So it is precisely because of this very public discussion and presentation of evidence we’re engaged in, and because of the accumulating international support for action, and the pressure that all of that has brought to bear on Assad and the Russians and others, that we are seeing this. So we will make the case to lawmakers that we need to keep the pressure up for that reason.
Q But just to follow up, you would want them to cast their vote without knowing exactly how this plays out?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think to -- yes, because the vote -- the authorization continues to put pressure on Assad and is the only reason why a proposition like this would have any chance of bearing fruit. If Assad believes that there’s no threat of retaliation for his use of chemical weapons, it’s hard to imagine that he will suddenly volunteer to give them up.
Q And my second follow-up or question was, in referring to the discussions with the Russians about the potential avenue, I’m not sure -- what would prevent the President of the United States right now issuing an ultimatum of his own to Assad, to the Syrian regime, and saying, here’s what we want to see, do this on this timetable, follow it out, follow it through?
MR. CARNEY: That’s a hypothetical. What we’re seeing now is reaction to the possibility of a U.S. military action and a proposal put forward by the Russians, and we will study it and engage with the Russians, as well as others, to see how serious it is and how credible the Syrian reaction is.
In the meantime, we need to make sure that we keep the pressure on, through the engagement with the international community that we’ve undertaken and through the case that we’re making to both Congress and the American people about why in a very limited way but an effective way we must respond to the use of chemical weapons against innocent civilians.
Q Can you just talk a little bit about tomorrow’s speech? Obviously, you can’t give us copies yet, but could you just talk about -- there’s been a few polls in the last day or two that show the American people are -- many are opposed, a lot of people not paying attention, not sure what’s going on. The President obviously can’t release classified information, so what can he share with them tomorrow that might help them understand what’s going on?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I appreciate the question and I’d say a couple of things. One is, it is entirely understandable that the American people and their representatives would be and are weary and wary of military engagement. They have every reason to be after the sustained military action that this country has taken over the past dozen years. As a starting point, that is an entirely understandable place to be.
I think that, while we here in Washington all consume high quantities of the same information all the time, and we hear all of you who cover him, and all of us who work with him and for him hear the President make this case, and think, well, then, everybody has heard it -- the fact is, as you noted, many people haven’t. And they may know only the headline they read or the snippet they heard on the news that President Obama is making the case for a military strike in Syria. And that, understandably, might raise some concern, given where we’ve been over these past 12 years.
And that is why it is important, A, to make the case about what happened; about the horrific consequences of the use of chemical weapons on innocent civilians in Syria, including children; about why this is in our national security interest to respond to make sure that this prohibition against chemical weapons use is maintained; and why it’s important to have the Congress join the President in support of that action.
So that’s what the American people will hear from the President tomorrow night. It’s what those who heard him in his press conference the other day heard him say, and it’s what, when he gives interviews, they’ll hear him say again. And we understand that we need to make the case and explain the facts more than once, because that’s the only way to reach as many people as we can. So that’s what we’ll be undertaking today, tomorrow and beyond as we engage with Congress and the American public and the international community on this issue.
Jen, last one.
Q Does the President think it would be legal to launch a military strike in Syria?
MR. CARNEY: I think you saw that Kathy Ruemmler addressed this is in an article today. The answer is, yes, in a legitimate response. And what I can tell you is the President believes that congressional authorization enhances the argument; that it’s important in this case, because of the facts based on the assessment given by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs that we can act militarily in a day or a week or a month, as the President said, and have the desired impact that we seek. And, therefore, given that, he felt it was very important to get congressional approval. But he’s also made clear that he believes he has the authority as Commander-in-Chief and President to take action. But we are better and stronger if we, in these circumstances, seek and receive authorization from Congress.
Q When you say “legitimate,” you mean legal?
MR. CARNEY: Again, I would point you to what White House Counsel said, since she addressed this and others have.
Obviously -- I mean, we have a circumstance here, because Assad is a client of the Russians, that we have not been able to achieve action from the United Nations Security Council. And it simply cannot be the case that in a circumstance like that, a violation of a prohibition against chemical weapons use should be ignored with all the consequences of ignoring that. And so the President is making his case.
We obviously have received international support for taking action, and that international support continues to increase. And the President is very mindful of and we understand the weariness about this kind of action in the public and in Congress, and that’s why we’re making the case that we’re making.
2:24 P.M. EDT
October 23, 2015
October 22, 2015
October 22, 2015
October 22, 2015
October 22, 2015
October 21, 2015
October 21, 2015
October 20, 2015