WASHINGTON, Sept. 4, 2013 – Emphasizing the need to protect U.S. national security interests, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee today he supports President Barack Obama’s decision to seek congressional authorization for the use of force in Syria.
Hagel joined Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in making the administration’s case for the use of force in response to a large-scale sarin gas assault which the administration says was carried out by the Syrian government against its own people.
Explaining the rationale behind what he acknowledged was a difficult decision for the national security team, Hagel urged Congress to consider not only “the risks and consequences of action,” but also the consequences of inaction.
Hagel reiterated the president’s assertion that Syria’s use of chemical weapons represents “a serious threat to America’s national security interests and those of our closest allies.” It poses a grave risk to partners along Syria’s borders, including Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq, he said.
Even more concerning, he said, is the possibility that terrorist groups such as Hezbollah, which has forces in Syria supporting President Bashar Assad’s regime, could acquire and use them.
“This risk of chemical weapons proliferation poses a direct threat to our friends and partners and to U.S. personnel in the region,” Hagel said. “We cannot afford for Hezbollah or any terrorist group determined to strike the United States to have incentives to acquire or use chemical weapons.”
Syria’s actions risk eroding the nearly century-old international norm against the use of chemical weapons that has helped to protect the U.S. homeland and U.S. forces operating across the globe, the secretary said. Weakening that norm, he said, could embolden other regimes, such as North Korea, to acquire or use chemical weapons.
“Given these threats to our national security, the United States must demonstrate through our actions that the use of chemical weapons is unacceptable,” Hagel said.
The military objectives in Syria would be “to hold the Assad regime accountable, degrade its ability to carry out these kinds of attacks and deter the regime from further use of chemical weapons,” he said.
The Defense Department has developed military options to achieve these objectives and positioned U.S. assets throughout the region to successfully execute this mission, he reported. “We believe we can achieve them with a military action that would be limited in duration and scope,” he told the Senate panel.
Hagel said he and Dempsey have assured Obama that U.S. forces will be ready to act whenever the president gives the order.
Meanwhile, officials are working with U.S. allies and partners, he said. “Key partners, including France, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and [other] friends in the region have assured us of their strong support for U.S. action,” he reported.
Hagel underscored that the military force would not be used to resolve the underlying conflict in Syria – an issue he said must be settled through a political solution by the Syrian people themselves. He noted that Kerry is leading international efforts to help the parties move toward a negotiated transition, and expressed a commitment to “doing more to assist the Syrian opposition.”
Military actions being contemplated would be tailored specifically to the use of chemical weapons, he assured the panel. “Assad must be held accountable for using these weapons in defiance of the international community,” he said.
In presenting the case for military action, Hagel urged the committee to recognize the consequences of not doing so.
“There are always risks in taking action, but there are also risks with inaction,” he warned. “The Assad regime, under increasing pressure by the Syrian opposition, could feel empowered to carry out even more devastating chemical weapons attacks” that he recognized make no distinction between combatants and innocent civilians.”
Refusing to act also would undermine the credibility of other U.S. security commitments, Hagel said, including Obama’s commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
“The word of the United States must mean something,” the secretary said. “It is vital currency in foreign relations and international and allied commitments.”
Noting that he, Kerry and Dempsey all have served in uniform, Hagel said they have witnessed the “ugly realities” of conflict up close. “But we also understand that America must protect its people and its national interests,” he said. “That is our highest responsibility.”
Hagel called the decision to use military force “the most difficult decision America’s leaders can make,” and urged vigorous congressional debate on the issue.
“All of those who are privileged to serve our nation have a responsibility to ask tough questions before that commitment is made,” he said. “The American people must be assured that their leaders are acting according to U.S. national interests, with well-defined military objectives, and with an understanding of the risks and consequences involved.”