Good morning, everyone. It's much closer quarters here.
As you now know, this morning the United States delivered a letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, providing our latest assessment of chemical weapons use in Syria. We've requested that the UN fact-finding mission include the information in this letter in its ongoing investigation.
Following a deliberative review, our intelligence community assesses with high confidence given multiple, independent streams of information that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin, on a small scale against the opposition on multiple occasions in the last year.
While the lethality of these attacks make up only a small portion of the catastrophic loss of life in Syria, which now stands at more than 90,000 deaths, the use of chemical weapons violates international norms and crosses clear red lines that have existed within the international community for decades.
We believe that the Assad regime maintains control of these weapons. We have no reliable, corroborated reporting to indicate that the opposition has acquired or used chemical weapons.
We regret that the Assad regime has failed to cooperate with the United Nations investigation by providing the necessary unfettered access and the ability to investigate any and all credible allegations of chemical weapons use.
We will continue our own investigation and analysis, along with friends and allies, even as we continue to maintain that the United Nations investigation should be allowed to go forward.
The Assad regime could prove that its request for a UN investigation was not just a diversionary tactic by granting the UN fact-finding mission immediate and unfettered access to conduct on-site investigations to help elucidate the truth about chemical weapons use in Syria.
Happy to take a few questions.
Reporter: Madame Ambassador, the Secretary General just said that he does not believe there can be confirmation of the use of chemical weapons without a chain of custody which requires investigators actually going to Syria to be on the ground. Is this a concern of the United States, that the information was not tracked from its beginning?
Ambassador Rice: Well certainly, the United States is very strongly supportive of the granting of unfettered access to the United Nations team to go on site inside various suspicious locations within Syria and to do the physical and forensic assessment that we all seek. And unfortunately, as I just said, the Syrian regime has refused to allow the access that the UN and the Secretary General have requested repeatedly. And we think it's high time that that access be granted.
In the meantime, the United States, using its own national means and in collaboration with other partners, have gathered a strong evidentiary basis through multiple streams of information that have led our intelligence community to assess with high confidence that indeed chemical weapons, including sarin gas, have been used on a small scale on multiple occasions over the past year. So we have been able to come to this conclusion through our own means, but we also feel very strongly that it's important for the United Nations to be able to do its investigation on the ground inside Syria of any and all credible allegations and that is what we've supported from the outset. And in the letter that the United States delivered and that I signed today on behalf of the United States, we outlined additional information that we think could contribute to that understanding of what has in fact transpired if the team were granted the access that we think it deserves.
Reporter: Thank you, Madame Ambassador. Are you concerned as the upcoming national security advisor that these chemical weapons might be transferred to organizations like Hezbollah, and what's your comment on Hezbollah's open involvement in the war in Syria, would that drag Lebanon into another civil war, Lebanon itself? Is the United States going to defend Lebanon's sovereignty, and how?
Ambassador Rice: We are certainly deeply concerned about Hezbollah's growing involvement as a combatant on the ground within Syria. And we think this is a dramatic escalation that has exacerbated the consequences of the conflict not only for the people of Syria, but for the people of the region, including of course the people of Lebanon.
And we think it's vitally important that the involvement of foreigners on the ground, particularly Hezbollah and Iran, cease, and we have been very actively supportive of achieving ultimately a negotiated political settlement with the people of Syria and for the benefit of the region. And that remains our ultimate objective even as we are dealing with risks that we have discussed today.
President Obama has made very clear that the use or transfer of chemical weapons is a red line and that red line has been crossed. And as a consequence, as you heard yesterday, the White House has announced a change in our approach such that the United States will increase and expand our assistance not only to the civilian opposition, but to the supreme military counsel as well.
Reporter: Thank you, Ambassador. Can you be a little more specific about what kind of military aid and what's the goal? How would you characterize it? How will that stop the chemical weapons?
Ambassador Rice: The nature of the support the United States will provide, I'm not going to elucidate in detail. But as my colleagues have said over the last twenty-four hours in Washington, we, first of all, will try to be responsive to the needs of the Supreme Military Council. We are already providing a range of support assistance, and that assistance will increase both in scope and scale. And we view that as an appropriate initial response to the crossing of this red line and the use of chemical weapons.
We have said that, conceivably, we will leave other options on the table in terms of additional U.S. response should we deem that in our interest and necessary. But the Assad regime should know that the decision announced yesterday is a direct consequence of our conclusion that they have utilized chemical weapons against the opposition and their own people. And indeed our aim, as I said just earlier, in response to Ali is a negotiated political settlement. And we view the decision taken yesterday in response to the use of chemical weapons and our efforts to promote a diplomatic solution as two tracks of importance that we are pursuing in parallel.
We think it's vitally important that we are able to see the two sides come to the table on the basis of the Geneva agreement reached last year, and that agreement says that they must negotiate and establish a transitional governing body with full executive powers on the basis of mutual consent. And it goes further to elaborate that those full executive powers include control of the military, the intelligence services, security services. That is what needs to happen in Geneva. That's what the United States is working for. We aim to, at the appropriate time, bring the opposition to the table on that basis, and we look to Russia and others who've supported the government to bring the Assad regime to the table on the basis on that Geneva agreement.
Reporter: Ambassador, what about the possibility of a no-fly zone that there were reports that the U.S. is considering it and the Russians have said publically that the evidence of chemical weapons is unconvincing?
Ambassador Rice: We have had multiple discussions with the Russians. They are aware of the evidence. They can characterize it whatever way they choose, but we have high confidence – our intelligence community has high confidence – that chemical weapons, including sarin, have been used by the government against the opposition on multiple occasions over the course of the last year on a small scale. So this is a conclusion that we are firm in.
As you'll recall, we've taken two months to reach this through a very careful and deliberative process from the first evidence that we described in April, and we are very confident in that assessment.
Ambassador Rice: I'm going to answer Lou's last question and then I'm going to have to go. Lou, on the issue of a no-fly zone, we have been clear that we're not excluding options, but at this stage no decision has been taken, and as my colleagues in Washington described at some length yesterday, that option has some downsides and limitations that we're very well aware of and will factor into any decision. What further steps we take will be a function of what we determine is necessary, what advances our principal goal of achieving a negotiated political settlement, and what is consistent with U.S. interest.
- Cross posted from U.S. Mission to the UN