LONDON — Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Thursday that he has seen “raw data” indicating that the Syrian government
has used chlorine gas as a chemical weapon in a “number of instances” in recent months.
“There will be consequences” if evidence of new chemical use is confirmed, Kerry said, but “we’re not going to pin ourselves down to a precise date, time, manner of action.”
Speaking after a meeting here of the Syrian opposition’s principal international backers, he also said they had agreed to expand humanitarian, diplomatic and military aid to the rebels.
“I’m not going to discuss what specific weapons or what country may . . . be providing or not providing” the arms, he said. “I will say that out of today’s meeting, every facet of what can be done is going to be ramped up. Every facet.”
The group has met regularly for two years, each time pledging unity and determination that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad not be allowed to remain in power.
Yet Assad’s position, with assistance from Iran, Russia and Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement, has appeared to be growing stronger. Kerry acknowledged “hurdles” over the past year, which has been marked by deep divisions within the Syrian opposition and reluctance and weak coordination among the countries committed to helping the rebels.
“I’m sure your question would be: ‘So what’s different today?’ ” Kerry said at a news conference.
He said the countries represented here — the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Jordan — are committed to a “ramped-up effort to make it clear that despite the fact that Assad may think today that he’s doing better and this process is somehow going to come to a close with him sitting pretty, the answer is no . . . we’re not going away, the opposition is not going away.”
In meetings in Washington over the past week with President Obama and his national security team, Ahmad al-Jarba, head of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, pressed the rebels’ often-repeated pleas for more sophisticated weapons — in particular, portable surface-to-air missiles to shoot down Syrian government aircraft.
The administration has consistently refused to provide them or allow other countries that have bought the weapons from the United States — Saudi Arabia, in particular — to give them to the rebels. Obama has said that he does not believe that shipments of advanced weaponry would improve the situation in Syria. The administration also fears that the arms could be turned over to the increasingly powerful Islamist extremists within rebel ranks.
This year, the administration approved a pilot program that allowed a limited number of U.S.-made TOW antitank missiles to be shipped to a moderate rebel group. But administration officials indicated this week that they still are not willing to approve the antiaircraft missiles.
Asked directly, however, Kerry appeared to suggest that the option was on the table. Teams from each donor country will meet in coming days “to lay out a specific set of steps that we can and will take together in order to have a greater impact,” he said. Although he would not discuss specifics, Kerry said that “every possible avenue that is available is going to be pursued by one country or another.”
After the remarks, a senior State Department official said there had been no change in U.S. concerns or its position against supplying the rebels with the missiles.
On the subject of Assad’s purported use of chlorine gas, France asserted this week that there is credible evidence that the chemical agent has been used at least 14 times in Syria since October.
On a visit Tuesday to Saudi Arabia, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said, “We have not seen any evidence of the specifics” of the French allegation.
Kerry, however, said, “I have seen evidence . . . it hasn’t been confirmed, but I’ve seen the raw data that there may have been, as France has suggested, a number of instances in which chlorine has been used in the conduct of war.” In addition to possible consequences that have been “made clear by President Obama and others,” the secretary of state noted that a French-sponsored resolution being circulated at the U.N. Security Council seeks to hold the Syrian government responsible for “crimes against humanity, atrocities in the course of this conflict.”
Kerry also said that the United States was “open” to bypassing the United Nations — the primary distributor of billions of dollars in humanitarian assistance to besieged Syrians — to reach those in need.
The United Nations maintains that all aid entering Syria must first go through the Assad government, despite a Security Council resolution this year approving direct, “cross-border” assistance and the world body’s own acknowledgment that a quarter-million Syrians in beseiged communities have received little, if any, assistance.
Last week, Britain said it would redirect up to half of its humanitarian aid to nongovernmental organizations willing to deliver it directly to those in need. The same decision “has not been categorically made” in Washington, Kerry said, but “we are very frustrated with the current process.”
Aid is “not getting to the people,” he said. “It’s going through one gate, one entryway, and it’s going through Damascus . . . or controlled by the Assad regime. That’s unacceptable. We need to be able to get aid more directly, and we’re going to work to do that. That’s a certainty.”
The United States will go back to the Security Council and challenge the process, Kerry said, adding, “Our patience is gone.”